Amazon’s Underbelly 4.0: Consumer Data Harvesting Has Gone Too Far

Originally published on Occupy.com

This is Part 4 in a series looking at the impacts of Amazon on government, surveillance and the democratic process. Read the first partsecond part and third part.

Amazon has formed an uncomfortable, yet formidable, relationship with the government by creating surveillance technology, providing cloud storage for the government, and using its excess wealth to inordinately influence politics and policy.

On top of this, the company strives to intimately understand its customers by harvesting consumer data at unprecedented levels – ironically, without the consent or the acknowledgement of its customers.

One of Amazon’s newest privacy-shattering fetishes is developing artificial intelligence in order to enhance the shopping experience for its customers.

Amazon has developed its own search engine, A9, in order to expedite this endeavor. Like it or not, if you’ve done a search on Amazon then you’ve used the search engine. A9 claims to create a simple and convenient shopping experience for its customers.

It uses data from customers’ previous purchases and offers suggestions when users enter their queries. A9 also uses ranking algorithms to present the most relevant results to the user. It can remember everything that you’ve ever searched for, and it has the right to share that information with its retail sector. The A9 website proudly states:

“Our work starts long before a customer types a query. We’ve been analyzing data, observing past traffic patterns, and indexing the text describing every product in our catalog before the customer has even decided to search. As soon as we see the first keystroke, we’re ready with instant suggestions and a comprehensive set of search results.”

A9 is looking to expand its search capabilities to include visual searches. Amazon bought out a small startup called Snaptell to embark on its visual search journey. The visual search works by “overlaying relevant information over camera-phone views of the world around [our customers].” In other words, it allows customers to take pictures of CDs, DVDs, or video games and the app will identify the product and provide ratings and pricing information.

Amazon also acquired the website Goodreads in 2013. Amazon regularly reviews a customer’s highlighted words and notes in order to figure out what interests them. The company then sends suggestions to the person’s Kindle for e-book recommendations. It provides the same function when items are added to their cart using a collaborative filtering engine (CFE).

Even more troubling, in a letter to shareholders in 2017, CEO Jeff Bezos describes how Amazon Web Services (AWS) clients would potentially have access to these AI learning frameworks.

Many data collection schemes like clickstream analytics, data warehousing, recommendation engines, and fraud detection are all done through cloud-computing. Developers from other companies that do business with Amazon may have the ability to use the same deep-learning tracking software because of their adoption of AWS.

The companies already using AWS run the gamut, from McDonald’s, Netflix, Adobe and Capital One to GE and Pinterest. All of these companies have a vested interest in tracking the habits of their customers and will likely, and gladly, pounce on the opportunity.

Amazon candidly talks about its approach to gathering information about its customers. In fact, the company even compare its collection of information to a partner who learns more about you as your relationship grows. Of course, in this case it’s a one-way interaction: You don’t get to learn anything about how Amazon operates.

In the letter, Bezos candidly referenced the underbelly to which this series has referred: “Much of what we do with machine learning happens beneath the surface. Machine learning drives our algorithms for demand forecasting, product search ranking, product and deals recommendations, merchandising placements, fraud detection, translations, and more.”

“Though less visible,” he continued, “much of the impact of machine learning will be of this type – quietly but meaningfully improving core operations.” The type of AI to which he’s referring is focused on human behavior and habit.

That’s right: much of what they do with machine learning happens beneath the surface, so the general public has no idea of the company’s newest initiatives to expand its power.

If A9 and its counterparts represent such a glorious, reputable and helpful piece of technology, and if its intentions are truly noble and pure, then why are the majority of Amazon customers blissfully unaware of its existence? Amazon continues to be opaque about its involvement in our government and in our lives: in its sale of facial recognition technology to our government, in its supply of clandestine cloud service to national security agencies and local municipalities, in its manipulation of our political process, and our private data as well. Amazon should at least make its intentions and its actions transparent to its customers.

Amazon has access to a troubling amount of industry information: lucrative private contracts with local governments; private consumer data; financial resources to lobby political leaders; business deals to sell surveillance technology; and a massive fortune and wealth to boot. Amazon remains one of the most powerful and influential companies on Earth, and Jeff Bezos the richest man in history. He and the company have the ability and influence to change our world for the better. But instead this empire continues to consolidate power and wealth for itself.

Amazon’s continued occult actions must be brought to light so that a true examination of its power can continue.

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