Amazon Is Watching

Kubilay 373 days ago
The Internet giant is wiring homes, neighborhoods, and cities with cameras and microphones, and powering the nation’s intelligence services. Are we sure we can trust it?

Then you think of Amazon, you might think of comparison shopping from your couch, buying exactly what you want, for less than you’d pay at the store. You might think of a delivery person dropping a package at your door, right on time, and how if there’s anything amiss you can send it back for a full refund. You might think of asking Alexa to play a song or a TV show or turn on the lights, and the marvel of how it all just works (usually). You might think of a Prime members’ discount on avocados at Whole Foods, which Amazon acquired in 2017.

Amazon’s reputation for serving its customers with low prices and ruthless efficiency might help to explain why, in survey after survey, the Seattle-based company ranks as America’s most valuable — nay, most loved — brand. One recent study found that Amazon is the second most-trusted institution of any kind in the United States, ahead of Google, the police, and the higher-education system, and trailing only the U.S. military. At a time when an endless string of privacy and election scandals has left Facebook’s reputation in smoldering ruins, and Google’s has been dented by YouTube’s radicalization and content moderation woes, Amazon’s is stronger than ever.

But Amazon’s public image as a cheerfully dependable “everything store” belies the vast and secretive behemoth that it has become — and how the products it’s building today could erode our privacy not just online but also in the physical world. Even as rival tech companies reassess their data practices, rethink their responsibilities, and call for new regulations, Amazon is doubling down on surveillance devices, disclaiming responsibility for how its technology is used, and dismissing concerns raised by academics, the media, politicians, and its own employees.

“We’re all hoping they’re not making a panopticon,” says Lindsey Barrett, staff attorney at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation. Last month, the institute, serving as counsel to a group of 19 watchdog groups, called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Amazon for alleged violations of the federal law protecting children’s online privacy. Among other concerns, they found that Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids Edition smart speaker retained children’s voice recordings and personal data even after parents tried to delete them. Amazon blamed at least part of the problem on a software bug, which it says it has since fixed.

While the outcome of that case remains to be seen, the complaint represents just the tip of the iceberg. The Amazon of today runs enormous swaths of the public internet; uses artificial intelligence to crunch data for many of the world’s largest companies and institutions, including the CIA; tracks user shopping habits to build detailed profiles for targeted advertising; and sells cloud-connected, A.I.-powered speakers and screens for our homes. It acquired a company that makes mesh Wi-Fi routers that have access to our private Internet traffic. Through Amazon’s subsidiary Ring, it is putting surveillance cameras on millions of people’s doorbells and inviting them to share the footage with their neighbors and the police on a crime-focused social network. It is selling face recognition systems to police and private companies.

The Amazon of tomorrow, as sketched out in patents, contract bids, and marketing materials, could be more omnipresent still. Imagine Ring doorbell cameras so ubiquitous that you can’t walk down a street without triggering alerts to your neighbors and police. Imagine that these cameras have face recognition systems built in, and can work together as a network to identify people deemed suspicious. Imagine Ring surveillance cameras on cars and delivery drones, Ring baby monitors in nurseries, and Amazon Echo devices everywhere from schools to hotels to hospitals. Now imagine that all these Alexa-powered speakers and displays can recognize your voice and analyze your speech patterns to tell when you’re angry, sick, or considering a purchase. A 2015 patent filing reported last week by the Telegraph described a system that Amazon called “surveillance as a service,” which seems like an apt term for many of the products it’s already selling.

Behind it all is a company whose leaders too often see privacy concerns as overblown, internal dissent as insignificant, and the potential for abuse of Amazon’s technologies as someone else’s problem.

“Just because tech could be misused doesn’t mean we should ban it and condemn it,” said Andy Jassy, the head of Amazon’s cloud business, at the Code Conference earlier this month. He suggested that banning face recognition systems, which can be potent surveillance tools but tend to discriminate against people of color, would be akin to banning email or knives — two pieces of technology, one new and one very old, that could also be employed for good or ill. “You could use a knife in a surreptitious way,” he said.

Everything Amazon is building, it should be said, has the potential to be used for good. Its doorbell cams can catch porch pirates; its face recognition software can help authorities track down suspects; Alexa can be useful around the house in myriad ways (usually). But when you put together the pieces, the company’s cloud-connected eyes and ears can take on an Orwellian dimension that makes Facebook and Google — the two tech companies that tend to loom largest in the privacy fears of consumers — look modest by comparison.

Ears in the Living Room

Let’s start with the company’s Alexa-powered devices, such as the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, and Echo Show, which have become a staple of smart homes. They put Internet-connected, always-on microphones, and in some cases cameras, inside your kitchen, living room, or bedroom. For the paranoid, that alone might be reason to shun them: Why risk opening a permanent portal between the Internet and your family’s most intimate spaces? But more than 100 million buyers have embraced them, trusting Amazon to guard their recordings in the process.