In January, my coworker received a peculiar email. The message, which she forwarded to me, was from a handful of corporate Walmart employees calling themselves the “Concerned Home Office Associates.” (Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas is often referred to as the Home Office.) While it’s not unusual for journalists to receive anonymous tips, they don’t usually come with their own slickly produced videos.
The employees said they were “past their breaking point,” with Everseen, a small artificial intelligence firm based in Cork, Ireland, whose technology Walmart began using in 2017. Walmart uses Everseen in thousands of stores to prevent shoplifting at registers and self-checkout kiosks. But the workers claimed it misidentified innocuous behavior as theft, and often failed to stop actual instances of stealing.
They told WIRED they were dismayed that their employer—one of the largest retailers in the world—was relying on AI they believed was flawed. One worker said that the technology was sometimes even referred to internally as “NeverSeen” because of its frequent mistakes. WIRED granted the employees anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press.
The workers said they had been upset about Walmart’s use of Everseen for years, and claimed colleagues had raised concerns about the technology to managers, but were rebuked. They decided to speak to the press, they said, after a June 2019 Business Insider article reported Walmart’s partnership with Everseen publicly for the first time. The story described how Everseen uses AI to analyze footage from surveillance cameras installed in the ceiling, and can detect issues in real time, such as when a customer places an item in their bag without scanning it. When the system spots something, it automatically alerts store associates.
“Everseen overcomes human limitations. By using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence, computer vision systems, and big data we can detect abnormal activity and other threats,” a promotional video referenced in the story explains. “Our digital eye has perfect vision and it never needs a day off.”
In an effort to refute the claims made in the Business Insider piece, the Concerned Home Office Associates created a video, which purports to show Everseen’s technology failing to flag items not being scanned in three different Walmart stores. Set to cheery elevator music, it begins with a person using self-checkout to buy two jumbo packages of Reese’s White Peanut Butter Cups. Because they’re stacked on top of each other, only one is scanned, but both are successfully placed in the bagging area without issue.
The same person then grabs two gallons of milk by their handles, and moves them across the scanner with one hand. Only one is rung up, but both are put in the bagging area. They then put their own cell phone on top of the machine, and an alert pops up saying they need to wait for assistance—a false positive. “Everseen finally alerts! But does so mistakenly. Oops again,” a caption reads. The filmmaker repeats the same process at two more stores, where they fail to scan a heart-shaped Valentine’s day chocolate box with a puppy on the front, and a Philips Sonicare electric toothbrush. At the end, a caption explains that Everseen failed to stop more than $100 of would-be theft.
The video isn’t definitive proof that Everseen’s technology doesn’t work as well as advertised, but its existence speaks to the level of frustration felt by the group of anonymous Walmart employees, and the lengths they went to prove their objections had merit.
In interviews, the workers, whose jobs include knowledge of Walmart’s loss prevention programs, said their top concern with Everseen was false positives at self-checkout. The employees believe that the tech frequently misinterprets innocent behavior as potential shoplifting, which frustrates customers and store associates, and leads to longer lines. “It’s like a noisy tech, a fake AI that just pretends to safeguard,” said one worker.