It’s hardly news that technology companies rely on surveillance capitalism to drive higher revenue. After all, the amount of data they gather has a direct correlation with their targeting algorithms and advertising products.
Among the Big Tech companies, however, Amazon is a curious case. None of its core products —Amazon Prime, AWS, Alexa, or Kindle—are free, and therefore it doesn’t need to constantly track user habits to make a profit. Amazon certainly sells advertising-based products, but those are restricted to the sellers on its platform, i.e. third-party sellers can spend money to appear at the top of the search results page. These advertising products don’t take into account user preferences or online behavior, in contrast to the social media and search behemoths.
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In 2019, Amazon earned 14.1 billion USD in revenue from advertising sales out of a total company revenue of 280.5 billion USD. Unlike Facebook and Google, who rely on advertising for 98% and 70% of their revenue, respectively, Amazon has diversified income streams and hasn’t placed most of its eggs in one basket.
One might extrapolate that because of this diversification, Amazon doesn’t need invasive tracking processes or products that spy on user behavior. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Amazon products that spy on you
Home security devices
Home security startup Ring, which Amazon acquired for 1 billion USD in 2018, has a checkered history with surveillance. Its main product, a video doorbell device, secretively shared data with the police, allowing them to contact Ring owners directly for copies of their video feeds.
A separate investigation by the Electronic Frontier Foundation revealed that Ring’s Android app was packed with third-party trackers that relayed data back to analytics and marketing companies such as AppsFlyer and Mixpanel. Facebook was a beneficiary, too. The information divulged through the app included names, IP addresses, mobile network carriers, and sensor data.
The “Neighbors” app run by Ring, which encourages users to report on crime and suspicious activity in their neighborhood, has also disproportionately flagged people of color.
Nonetheless, it certainly seems as if Amazon is doubling down on Ring. Its latest gizmo, a camera-enabled drone that connects to Ring security systems, is programmed to fly around users’ homes at preset intervals, recording live footage while ostensibly checking for burglars.
Privacy advocates have lampooned the Ring Always Home drone, pointing to a violation of the sacred idea of your home as a private and secure space. However, it’s clear that Amazon isn’t going to back off on building connected devices that can talk to one another.
It’s also developing an ecosystem called “Amazon Sidewalk” that helps devices such as Echo, Ring, and internet-connected motion detectors work in concert both inside your home and in the neighborhood. In a blog post, the company outlined its vision for Sidewalk, saying the goal was to continue to receive motion alerts from security cameras even when Wi-Fi goes down, as well as to enable “smart security,” and help with diagnostics.
Surveillance will play a large role in this.
The public launch of Amazon Go grocery stores in February showed the world what a truly contactless supermarket shopping experience might look like. You scan your Amazon app at the entrance and proceed to shop as usual. Cameras monitor your every move, including what you pick off the shelves. There are no humans to assist.
While Amazon insists that its grocery stores were built with a privacy-first approach, the fact is that as more people shop in it, the more data it will gather on consumer habits. The inevitable debate over the convenience vs privacy tradeoff will begin to gather steam.
Amazon doesn’t have a great track record of maintaining privacy around shopping and payment habits in any case. Its co-branded credit card routinely shared personal information with several third parties, and so far there hasn’t been any evidence to suggest a different approach.
In fact, Amazon’s only increasing the technological sophistication of its contactless grocery stores. Newly installed Amazon One scanners allow shoppers to pay for their goods by hovering the palm of their hand over a scanner. That’s another potential privacy nightmare.
By January 2019, Amazon had sold over 100 million internet-connected Echo and Echo Dot devices, giving it a solid foothold in the household voice assistant market. But Alexa, the voice-enabled digital assistant that comes front loaded on Echo devices, isn’t without her fair share of privacy transgressions.
Alexa has sent people copies of voice recordings they never asked for, even recording conversations between husband and wife. German security researchers have demonstrated how Alexa-connected devices don’t incorporate privacy best practices and are easy to crack.
Even Amazon has admitted that employees are asked to eavesdrop on Alexa’s conversations, defending the practice by saying that the data is used to “improve the customer experience” and “train its speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.” That’s poor optics, no matter how you slice and dice it.
For a large tech conglomerate, Amazon has the most exposure to potential labor unionization and strikes. It relies on hundreds of thousands of frontline workers around the globe to package and ship its products in sprawling fulfillment centers. Labor issues can cause shipping disruptions, preventing the company from meeting its tight Amazon Prime delivery timelines.
Warehouse conditions at Amazon are notoriously poor and employees have agitated for change on several occasions. Despite that, Amazon has successfully prevented its warehouse workers from unionizing and demanding greater benefits.
Part of the reason could be the hardline approach it takes towards its workers. Amazon has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in building software to visualize data on unions around the world, while also hiring for roles to “monitor labor organizing threats.” Corporate employees at the company routinely spy on Facebook groups and other online platforms used by fulfilment staff to communicate with each other.
Surveillance tech for the government
Amazon’s Rekognition, a facial recognition tool, has attracted a spate of criticism since it launched in 2018. The error-prone technology has mistakenly matched members of Congress with a crime database, and an MIT study found that it misidentified darker-skinned women as men 31% of the time. However, Amazon has lobbied for Rekognition to be used at the U.S. border as well as with local law enforcement personnel.
Following mass civil unrest in the U.S. earlier this year, Amazon issued a one-year moratorium on providing law enforcement agencies sophisticated facial recognition technology. But it hasn’t ruled out collaboration in the future. What’s more, it also hired former NSA chief Keith Alexander to serve on its board of directors—a move that will only strengthen Amazon’s relationship with the Pentagon.
Can you hide from Amazon?
Admittedly, it can be difficult to quit a company when its reach covers so many areas of modern life. But the best way to opt out of most of Amazon’s surveillance practices is by refusing to buy Amazon products.