Christian Stewart is a privacy researcher and reporter. Follow his latest coverage on YouTube.
Amazon has developed a reputation for delivering some of the lowest prices for all types of products, and one of the best delivery systems in the world. Part of what makes this possible is Amazon’s extensive use of people’s data. We’re taking a look at which information Amazon collects and how it collects that information.
Amazon collects information about people using Amazon.com, and all of the small subsidiaries that Amazon controls. Amazon’s impressive efficiency is due to the company collecting and analyzing data from nearly every interaction it has with its customers.
When you visit an Amazon-owned and operated site or unaffiliated sites, Amazon serves “interest-based” ads. These ads are personalized, or targeted, based on your past purchases, any sites you’ve visited that contain Amazon content, your interactions with any Amazon services and use of Amazon’s payment system. Amazon also operates its own advertising network, which accounted for $3.4 billion in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2018. The company plans to expand its advertising services and marketing technology infrastructure so brands can reach their customers more efficiently on Amazon. Amazon has a unique position in the advertising industry because it has so much data about people’s purchase behavior. It can use all this data to predict when people are likely to make purchases, and serve ads at the best moment.
While Amazon gets great value out of the data it collects from each of its customers, it also shares that information with third parties. Amazon discloses in it’s privacy notice that it shares your information with the following groups:
Amazon has confirmed that it retains your Alexa voice recordings indefinitely, which is concerning considering the cases when Alexa devices have recorded every conversation a user has. One user in Germany requested his personal data from Amazon, and was presented with 1,700 audio recordings of someone he didn’t know. This is concerning because this user didn’t even own an Alexa device. Alexa devices require users login to an Amazon account before their device will work, so any information that the device collects will be linked back to your Amazon account. Amazon’s smart home devices, including Alexa and Echo, are just another interaction point for Amazon to collect information about the people who use these products.
Amazon has publicly opposed covert government surveillance, however according to Freedom of Information requests it has supplied facial recognition support to law enforcement in the form of the Rekognition technology and consulting services. It’s instances like this that drive people’s distrust of platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon. It’s unfortunate that Amazon hasn’t been transparent about it’s use of facial recognition, because it does have some exciting uses that could make people’s shopping much more efficient.
Are we all just moving towards being trapped in a system totally controlled by Amazon?
"We’re all hoping they’re not making a panopticon,” says Lindsey Barret, staff attorney at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation. A panopticon is a circular prison where all prisoners can be monitored at all times by a single guard. We could end up trapped in a system where Amazon is completely controlling our purchases and we don’t even understand how they’re doing so.
According to Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, in The Guardian people “want protection, and they want alternatives. We need laws and regulation designed to advantage companies that want to break with surveillance capitalism.” Media outlets have discussed regulating tech companies like Amazon extensively, but there has yet to be any action that changes the ways these companies operate. There have yet to be any meaningful moves to limit the large tech companies that are using our data to influence our behavior.
Amazon’s Privacy Notice gives a fairly complete explanation of how the company collects and uses our data, but there are some vague areas that need addressing.
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