Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Amazon Lobbyists Fighting Against Consumer Privacy Protections

Jeffrey Dastin, Chris Kirkham, and Aditya Kalra, Reuters:

Amazon’s lobbying against privacy protections aims to preserve the company’s access to detailed consumer data that has fueled its explosive online-retailing growth and provided an advantage in emerging technologies, according to the Amazon documents and former employees. The data Amazon amasses includes Alexa voice recordings; videos from home-camera systems; personal health data from fitness trackers; and data on consumers’ web-searching and buying habits from its e-commerce business.

Some of this information is highly sensitive. Under a 2018 California law that passed despite Amazon’s opposition, consumers can access the personal data that technology companies keep on them. After losing that state battle, Amazon last year started allowing all U.S. consumers to access their data. (Customers can request their data at this link.) Seven Reuters reporters obtained and examined their own Amazon dossiers.

Even setting aside its massive cloud computing business, it is staggering to imagine how much information Amazon has access to on its users with historically poor internal controls. For its heaviest users — Prime members who have Ring doorbells, Alexa devices in every room, read their Kindle most nights, and shop at Whole Foods — Amazon has a more-or-less complete picture of their lifestyle.

I am a very light Amazon user, with just one order made in 2021, and six in 2020. I do not have any Alexa or Kindle devices, and have never shopped at Whole Foods. So I was a little surprised when I requested my data on November 19 and was told that it would take up to a month for them to produce a copy. I delayed writing about this story because I wanted to have a copy of my own data in hand, but it has been five days and I have not received anything. Any other large technology company has produced a copy of my data within hours of me making the request, and even the slowest information brokers have taken just a couple days. Is Amazon relying on an entirely manual process?

Some of the examples cited by Reuters are a little weak on their face:

Alexa devices also pulled in data from iPhones and other non-Amazon gear – including one reporter’s iPhone calendar entries, with names of people he was scheduled to contact.

I am not sure it is newsworthy that Alexa devices need to know information about users’ calendar entries in order to respond to queries like “what time is my meeting with Leslie?”, for example. But perhaps it should be — if this reporter was not aware of how much information a smart speaker needed to ingest and share with Amazon’s servers, for some reason, it can understandably feel like an invasion of privacy. If something can be done locally, it probably ought to be.

One more thing:

As executives edited the draft, Herdener summed up a central goal in a margin note: “We want policymakers and press to fear us,” he wrote. He described this desire as a “mantra” that had united department leaders in a Washington strategy session.

This is a terrible goal to even suggest in a margin note, and it is indicative of the kind of ruthless work culture that urgently needs to die.