Amazon is spying on us? A terrifying story told by a senator from the US state of Virginia demonstrates how bad things really are.
Edward Snowden, one of the world’s most wanted fugitives, has warned us of what is to come. And it’s already here. This Reuters storey confirms that Amazon is spying on us in such detail that there is no longer any privacy in any aspect of our lives.
Ibraheem Samirah, a Virginia lawmaker, has spent a lot of time studying internet privacy issues and openly discussed how to regulate tech firms’ collection of personal data. Nonetheless, he was taken aback when he learned the full extent of the data Amazon.com had on him.
Only from his phone, the e-commerce titan collected over 1,000 contacts. It had records of which parts of the Quran Samirah, (raised as a Muslim) had listened to on a specific date. Amazon was aware of every search he conducted on its platform, including one for books on “progressive community organising” and other sensitive health-related inquiries he believed were private.
“Are they really selling products or just spying on ordinary people?” asked Samirah, a Democrat in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Samirah was one of only a few Virginia legislators to oppose an industry-friendly state privacy bill drafted by Amazon that was passed earlier this year. Samirah requested that Amazon disclose the data it had collected on him as a consumer soon after.
Amazon is spying on us through every product it has
Amazon collects a vast amount of information on its customers in the United States, and it began making that data available to all upon request early last year, after failing to defeat a 2018 California measure requiring such disclosures. (Amazon customers in the United States can obtain their data by completing a form on Amazon.com)
That Amazon is spying on us was confirmed by seven Reuters journalists who also obtained access to their private data on the company server. The data demonstrates the corporation’s ability to collect strikingly intimate portraits of individual customers.
Amazon is spying by collecting information through its Alexa voice assistant, e-commerce marketplace, Kindle e-readers, Audible audiobooks, video and music platforms, home-security cameras, and fitness trackers. Alexa-enabled devices record everything that happens inside people’s homes, and Ring security cameras record every visitor.
Such data can reveal a person’s height, weight, and health; their ethnicity and political leanings (via clues in voice data); their reading and purchasing habits; their whereabouts on any given day, and sometimes who they have met.
Amazon is spying on children too
According to one journalist’s dossier, Amazon collected more than 90,000 Alexa recordings of family members between December 2017 and June 2021 – an average of about 70 per day. The recordings included information such as the reporter’s young children’s names and favourite songs.
Amazon recorded the children asking Alexa how they could persuade their mom and dad to let them “play” and receiving detailed instructions on how to persuade their parents to buy them video games.
Alexa advised the kids to be fully prepared to refute common parent arguments such as “too violent,” “too expensive,” and “you’re not doing well in school.” According to Amazon’s website, the information came from a third-party programme called “wikiHow,” which provides how-to advice from over 180,000 articles.
Amazon stated that it does not own wikiHow, but Alexa does occasionally respond to requests with information from websites.
Conversations between family members using Alexa devices to communicate across different parts of the house were captured in some recordings. Several recordings show children apologising to their parents after they have been disciplined. Others picked up the children, ages 7, 9, and 12, and began asking Alexa questions about terms such as “pansexual.”
“Alexa, what is a vagina?” a child asks in one recording. “Alexa, what does bondage mean?” says another.
Before Amazon disclosed the data it tracked on the family, the reporter had no idea Amazon was storing the recordings.
Company denies everything
According to Amazon, its Alexa products are designed to record as little as possible, beginning with the trigger word “Alexa” and ending when the user’s command is completed. The recordings of the reporter’s family, on the other hand, occasionally captured longer conversations.
Amazon said in a statement that scientists and engineers are working to improve the technology and avoid false triggers that prompt recording. When customers set up Alexa accounts, the company warns them that recordings are saved.
Amazon stated that it collects personal data in order to improve products and services and tailor them to individuals. When asked about Samirah’s records of listening to the Quran on Amazon’s audiobooks service, Amazon stated that such data allows customers to pick up where they left off from a previous session.
According to Amazon, the only way for customers to delete much of their personal data is to close their account. As per the company, it retains some information after account closure, such as purchase history, to comply with legal obligations.
Amazon stated that customers can limit the amount of data collected by voice assistants and other services by adjusting their settings. Alexa users, for example, can instruct Amazon not to save their recordings or have them deleted automatically on a regular basis. If they don’t want to use Alexa’s calling or scheduling functions, they can disconnect their contacts or calendars from their smart-speaker devices.
Customers can choose not to have their Alexa recordings examined, but they must go through a series of menus and two warnings that say, “If you turn this off, voice recognition and new features may not work well for you.” When asked about the warnings, Amazon stated that customers who limit data collection may be unable to personalise certain features, such as music playback.
Samirah, 30, received an Amazon Alexa-enabled smart speaker for Christmas last year. He claimed he only used it for three days before returning it after discovering it was recording audio. “It really freaked me out,” he said.
The device had already gathered all of his phone contacts as part of a feature that allows users to make calls directly from the device. According to Amazon, Alexa users must grant permission for the company to access their phone contacts. Customers must disable access to phone contacts rather than simply deleting the Alexa app in order for the records to be removed from their Amazon account.
Samirah expressed concern that Amazon kept detailed records of his audiobook and Kindle reading sessions. Finding information about his Quran listening in his Amazon file, he said, made Samirah think about the history of U.S. police and intelligence agencies surveilling Muslims for suspected terrorist links after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“Why do they need to know?” he wondered.
Helping the law enforcement agencies
Occasionally, law enforcement agencies request customer data from technology companies. Amazon states that it complies with search warrants and other lawful court orders seeking data stored on an account, but objects to “extremely broad or otherwise inappropriate requests.”
Amazon data for the three years ending June 2020, the most recent available, show that the company complied at least partially with 75% of subpoenas, search warrants, and other court orders seeking data on US customers. As much as 38 percent of those requests were fully met by the company.
Last year, Amazon stopped disclosing how frequently it complies with such requests. When asked why, Amazon stated that it broadened the scope of the US report to make it global, and “streamlined” the information from each country on law enforcement inquiries.
According to the company, it is required to comply with “valid and binding orders,” but its goal is to release “the bare minimum” required by law.
That data can become quite personal. Amazon’s Kindle e-readers, for example, precisely track a user’s reading habits, according to another reporter’s Amazon data file. The disclosure included records of over 3,700 reading sessions since 2017, including timestamped logs of books read to the millisecond. Amazon also keeps track of words that are highlighted or looked up, pages that are turned, and promotions that are viewed.
It revealed, for example, that a family member read “The Mitchell Sisters: A Complete Romance Series” from 4:52 p.m. to 7:36 p.m. on August 8, 2020, flipping 428 pages.
According to Florian Schaub, a privacy researcher at the University of Michigan, businesses are not always forthcoming about what they do with users’ data. “Rather than being confident that the data won’t be misused,” he said, “we have to rely on Amazon doing the right thing.”
It is obvious that Amazon is spying on us, but what is more concerning is that Amazon is not the only behemoth capable of doing so. In fact, Google and Facebook are far more advanced in data collection and have most likely gathered even more information. When we consider the enormity of the problem, Apple’s attempt to halt companies’ data collection efforts with its new operating systems appears naive. And the new European GDPR compliance policies don’t look much more promising either.
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