Every step you take: We track you for your own safety, you know?

Amazon CEO is pruning my roses

Hiker checks dead battery on smartphone... against wild valley backdrop. Photo via Shutterstock

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Jeff Bezos does my gardening.

This was something of a surprise to me, too, as my usual gardener – who's called Geoff, eerily enough – has already visited this morning. Why Mr Bezos should now be in my back garden trimming bushes and edging the lawn is beyond me. Maybe it's a Prime Exclusive.

Unfortunately, I haven't seen JB in person, fondling a hoe in one hand while wielding his dibber in the other, otherwise I might have taken a photo as proof. But I have been tracking his movements all day by smartphone and he's currently lurking by the fence.

I have been doing this at his invitation, please note. Jeff sent me an email – or it may have come from one of his underlings, I don't remember – to say that he would be delivering my package that very day and that I should track his location with real-time updates.

Jeff's slow progress across the street map has been compelling viewing, by the way. I can barely take my eyes off the tracker as he traces a convoluted path across south-east London, the "pet water fountain" that I ordered yesterday rolling around in the back of his van.

In fact, I've been watching the little blue circle wobble around the streets for hours. It produces the same level of slack-jawed fascination in me as those old disk defragger utilities – giving me thrills every time three orange squares moved from the untidy matrix at the bottom of the screen to neat rows at the top, and causing me to squeal in horror if it found a bad sector.

It was only as Jeff got closer to my abode that I zoomed into the map and noticed that he seemed to be not so much parking outside each house on his delivery route as driving through their front gates and smashing into their living rooms. And when he reached the road parallel to mine, he seemed to have actually driven straight through the house of my neighbour at the back and made his way into my back garden.

The funny thing is that I'm now standing at my back door and can't see where he's got to. I quickly fire off a letter of complaint to Amazon Customer Services, making a particular note of Jeff's dangerous driving and failure to clear away three bin bags of clippings like he (or was it Geoff?) promised.

Oh, hang on.

Now I get it. The tracker isn't in the van, it's in Jeff's smartphone. And looking more closely at the street map, it appears he's not in my back garden but my neighbour's, placing his delivery package in its "safe location" at the back porch. Now he's making his way back to the van and has set off again down the road. My delivery is next!

I scuttle excitedly across the hallway, tracking the van on my smartphone as it pulls up on my street and then watch in fascination as the blue circle shuffles off the road, floats along the pavement and glides up my front path. I'm already at the front door to greet him, only slightly disappointed to see that it isn't Jeff after all, nor is it Geoff, and no gardening implements are involved.

I'm pretty sure it isn't Mr Bezos in disguise either because as I accept my package I reward him with a broad Amazon smile and he is showing no obvious recognition of my cheerful imitation of his own corporate branding. Or perhaps he sees this all the time, is personally affronted by such flagrant misuse of the Amazon logo and has secretly pressed a Dash button on his car keychain that is right now firing off a cease-and-desist legal email to my inbox.

Minutes later, my cat has sniffed once at his brilliant new water fountain and will no doubt proceed to ignore it for the remainder of all time. As I observe him turn his back on the newly installed gadget, raise his tail and stalk off to lick drips from the bathroom tap, I shake my head yet again at the blatant intrusiveness of smartphone tracking as a condition of employment.

Here we are, a whole generation after the initial outburst of woe from lorry drivers concerning tachometers, and it has got so much worse. These days, it's not so much spy-in-the-cab as spy-in-your-pocket. Tachometers show a blip if you stop off en route for a full English breakfast; smartphones trigger corporate klaxons at head office if you pull up for a pee behind a hedge.

A couple of years ago, British daily newspaper The Telegraph notoriously and somewhat contradictorily tried to track the movements of sedentary staff on the news floor by installing motion detectors under every desk, aimed at employees' groins. That is, it has always been accepted that they were motion detectors and not cameras, otherwise it might have introduced world business to a new concept of Enterprise Upskirting. Perhaps the live crotch-cam feeds could be managed via AWS, who knows? I must ask Jeff when he next makes a delivery.

The groin detectors were subsequently removed after a howl of protest but not before the newspaper's PR department spouted a load of hokum about the devices being an innocent desk management exercise, as opposed to a blatant HR nosey bastard redundancy lottery exercise.

So you will excuse me for being a little cynical when I share news with you about a product called IncidentEye, which tracks where your employees are at all times with the help of a smartphone app. It lets employers see where each employee is at any chosen moment and – my favourite feature – send specifically geolocated groups instant in-app, SMS and email messages directly to find out what they're up to and tell them to shift their arses.

Naturally, this has nothing at all to do with spying on your staff, oh no. It's about safety. IncidentEye is marketed as a system for ensuring bosses can warn their staff about terror attacks, travel disruption, "fire and explosions" (yes, that's what it says) and severe weather in their actual real-time locations. This makes logical sense: after all, what employer isn't sensitive and sympathetic to the challenges faced by individual members of staff frequently arriving late at work due to cancelled trains and bad weather?

Now I feel bad about being so cynical. The product isn't trying to check on your toilet breaks, overrunning business lunches and unscheduled visits to Madame Butterbuttocks' House of Pain. It's to protect your health and safety.

The app, which comfortingly runs silently in the background, is designed to "collect real-time information on those located in the geozone. Those involved are prompted to specify whether they are safe or need assistance." And just in case you were worried, "Status information and communications are tracked throughout the incident. This is saved as a report and audit trail."

See? What could be more innocent than that? (Certainly not Madame Butterbuttocks.)

Anyway, enough of secretive organisations prying into every living second of the private lives of their downtrodden minions, sorry I mean genuinely caring for the longterm wellbeing of their well-paid and trusted charges, let's get back to what really matters at the moment: the World Cup. There's certainly no evil corporation involved in soccer!

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He would like to make it clear that he believes IncidentEye is genuinely offered to employers as a means of keeping their staff safe in the event of a major incident. He is simply undecided whether an HR department taking advantage of it to idly keep tabs on staff while compiling redundancy lists counts as "misuse".



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