Employee Surveillance AI: How Aware Enhances Your Workplace Chats

If you use Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or other popular apps to communicate with your colleagues, you might want to watch what you say. There is a good chance that your messages are being scanned by employee surveillance AI.

That’s what Aware, a seven-year-old startup based in Columbus, Ohio, does for its clients. Among them are some of the largest U.S. employers, such as Walmart, Delta Air Lines, T-Mobile, Chevron, and Starbucks, and European brands like Nestle and AstraZeneca.

According to Jeff Schumann, co-founder, and CEO of Aware, the company’s AI helps businesses “understand the risk within their communications”. It can measure employee sentiment in real time, instead of relying on periodic surveys. It can also detect bullying, harassment, discrimination, noncompliance, pornography, nudity, and other inappropriate behaviors, using dozens of AI models that can read text and process images.

How Aware’s employee surveillance AI works

Aware offers two main products: analytics and eDiscovery. The analytics product monitors employee sentiment and toxicity, using anonymized data. It allows clients to see how different groups of employees react to new policies or campaigns, based on factors like age or location.

The eDiscovery product, on the other hand, can flag individual employee names, in case of extreme threats or other risky behaviors that are predefined by the client. This product is used for governance, risk, and compliance purposes, which account for about 80% of Aware’s business.

Aware said that Walmart, T-Mobile, Chevron, and Starbucks use its technology for this reason. CNBC contacted these companies, as well as Nestle, but did not receive a response. AstraZeneca confirmed that it uses the eDiscovery product, but not the analytics one. Delta said that it uses both products for monitoring trends and sentiment, gathering feedback, and retaining legal records.

The ethical concerns of employee surveillance AI

While Aware claims that its employee surveillance AI is beneficial for both employers and employees, some experts disagree. They warn that such technology could violate privacy, erode trust, and create a culture of fear and self-censorship.

Jutta Williams, the co-founder of Humane Intelligence, a nonprofit that advocates for AI accountability, said that employee surveillance AI could lead to “thought crime”. She told CNBC: “This is treating people like inventory in a way I’ve not seen.”

Williams was speaking generally about employee surveillance AI, not specifically about Aware’s technology. However, she raised some valid questions about the accuracy, fairness, and transparency of such systems, especially when they involve sensitive data and decisions.

The rise of employee surveillance AI

Employee surveillance AI is a niche but growing segment of the larger AI market, which has exploded in the past year. The launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot in late 2022 sparked a wave of interest and innovation in generative AI, which can create content such as text, images, audio, and video.

Generative AI has been adopted by various industries, from financial services and biomedical research to logistics, online travel, and utilities. It has also become a buzzword for corporate earnings calls, as companies boast about their AI capabilities and investments.

Aware has benefited from this trend and the shift to remote work during the pandemic, which increased the demand for online collaboration tools and employee surveillance AI. Schumann told CNBC that the company’s revenue has grown 150% per year on average over the past five years and that its typical customer has about 30,000 employees.

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