Amazon knows a lot about us. Should we be worried?

Amazon has propelled Jeff Bezos, the CEO and founder of Amazon, from online bookseller to tech titan. He's now the richest man on the planet. On 17th September, the BBC's Panorama programme investigated just how powerful Amazon have become, and what this might mean for us as consumers.

In today's digital age, customer data is of huge value to companies. Amazon have recently come under the microscope for the amount of data they collect, and what they do with it.

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James Thomson, former Amazon executive, puts it like this: "they happen to sell products, but they are a data company". If customer data is at the heart of Amazon, users ought to know the truth. Is Amazon a data-stealing devil, or a retailer dedicated to fulfilling consumer desires?

Leo Kelion, self-confessed Amazon super-user, talks of his concern with the data Amazon stores about him. He decided to find out everything Amazon knows about him, by submitting a GDPR "subject access request". His firsthand account reveals the sheer amount of information they have, as well as exposing the eerie nature of the types of data collected.

What kind of data does Amazon collect?

From Amazon's early days, employees would build data sets and see how these could be taken advantage of for future sales. David Selinger, who led the Customer Behaviour Research unit, says: “What was unique about the internet and Amazon at the time was that we were able to take each individual customer and then change the experience". This practice has only increased in scale as Amazon has grown, and increased some might say to a frightening extent.

As well as collecting data about what you buy, Amazon collects a range of different data including:

  • Product searches, and how many times you clicked on the searched item
  • Your location
  • The device(s) you are using
  • Your Alexa voice assistant interactions, including specific songs and the time of the request; controversially actual voice clips may also be collected and shared with employees
  • Your Kindle use, including exact time of day for each tap
  • Your detailed clickstreams: these are the trails that show which sites users come from, how they travel through Amazon's own pages, and where they go to next

All of these pieces of data are measures that could indicate your enthusiasm for, or ability to purchase, particular items. Amazon may use them to change what they show you, including the prices of the items that you are looking at. With your actions online tracked to the last detail, Amazon has a large amount of data to analyse that they can use to manipulate what they show you in the hopes of persuading you to buy.

Why does it matter what Amazon knows about you?

James Marcus, who was an in-house book reviewer with Amazon when it started, explains that Jeff Bezos understood that data was valuable. “The idea that every mouse click and every twist and turn through the website was itself a commodity, was a new sort of thinking for most of the employees - and for me too”.

The question most Amazon users want answered is whether this data collection is used beneficially, to enhance customer experience, or more questionably, to control consumers in a subtle yet manipulative way?

Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard professor and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, has the answer. She says "in the surveillance capital model we are not customers, we are sources of raw material".

How do Amazon turn data into dollars? The ex-Amazon executive James Thompson explains: “Amazon can basically anticipate what you’re going to need next - size up the inventory of which brands they are going to need in three to six months when you are ready to ‘unexpectedly’ buy those products".

It's not just the fact that Amazon know a great deal about you that troubles many. It's how they use this knowledge for profit, by exploiting you as an individual person.

So what if your voice is being recorded through your Amazon Alexa smart speaker? Shoshana Zuboff warns that Amazon can tell a great deal from voice beyond the words used, including emotions and people's values. Voice analysis can be used to the retailer's advantage, even if the user is completely oblivious to this.

You would care if someone was in your home spying on you, or if an intruder planted a bug in your house. But because Amazon are a reputable company, and many people are buying their smart speakers, consumers tend to trust them and not question their intentions.

Technology has infiltrated our lives to such an extent that the public and private have become blurred. Surveillance is happening everywhere, and can even shape our behaviour. "You don't necessarily see it as big brother if it's done carefully", says James Thomson.

The Amazon super-user Leo Kelion noticed 1,400 "accidental activations" of his Alexa speaker in the response to his data access request. In other words, even when the device didn't light up to indicate it was collecting his data, information was still being gathered.

The more Amazon knows about us, the more powerful they become. Meanwhile, the consumer remains vulnerable and in the dark about how their data is being used, and how they can protect themselves from exploitation now and in the future.

And what might that future hold? One of Amazon’s first investors John Doerr has an idea what could be next on the agenda for Amazon: "Prime Health", a health service bundled under the Amazon Prime brand. This new provider might use data, such as the medication someone is on and what food they shop for, for product targetting. John warns: “When those types of things start to happen, I believe it will become much more apparent that we have a major major data problem”.

And the threat is not confined to the Amazon platform itself, Leo Kelion believes, because Amazon is collecting data about us wherever we are online and in our homes. He says : "It’s now practically impossible to go about the day without enriching Amazon in some way". As Amazon's presence rapidly increases, users must become more aware of how much it actually knows about them, and learn how to take back some agency. But how we can make that happen is as yet unclear.

 

This is a summary of the BBC article Why Amazon knows so much about you by Leo Kelion.