'Amazon knows more about you than your best friend or your doctor'

Our online behaviour can tell the company more than we think — and this could have a big impact on our lives

Our online behaviour can tell the company more than we think — and this could have a big impact on our lives

May 12, 2019 San Jose / CA / USA - Exterior view of Amazon Hub Locker in the downtown area, Silicon Valley (Getty Images)

Amazon has seen major change since its early days of selling books online from a garage near Seattle, Wash. Today, the company is a corporate superpower, offering the world's biggest online marketplace, in addition to its cloud computing, artificial intelligence and streaming services. In the journey from bookseller to tech titan, Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder, has become the richest person on the planet.

While Amazon has revolutionized retail, the information it gathers about us offers incredible power to shape our behaviour. The full extent of that power is explored in Amazon: What They Know About Us, a documentary from The Passionate Eye. 

Information is power, according to Bezos

In the film, Amazon insiders say from the company's beginnings, Bezos was intent on mining data to understand how his customers thought. "Jeff's background before he started Amazon was as an algorithmic trader, and so he believed really deeply in his roots that from data you can make money," says David Selinger, who worked for the company in the early days of its push to monetize data.

Bezos poured hundreds of millions of dollars into new technology. He created a customer behaviour research team, which analyzed a shopper's clicks and used the information to create a virtual profile of them. 

Amazon knows more about you than your best friend

Fifteen years after Bezos launched his project, Katharina Nocun, a privacy campaigner living in Berlin, requested her data history from Amazon. She was shocked to find that, through only 100 purchases, over 15,000 pieces of information were collected about her. From a simple clickstream — a history of her behaviour on Amazon's site — Nocun discovered just how much Amazon knew about her personal life. 

Amazon: What They Know About Us - Clickstream

3 years ago
Duration 1:10
One privacy campaigner requested her own data from Amazon, and was shocked to find that, through 100 purchases, 15,000 data points were created about her. "They know more about you than your best friend..."

Amazon says the data-tracking it practices is used to improve the user experience. But by understanding our browsing and purchasing habits, the company can not only direct our shopping behaviour through ads and offers, it may also influence our social behaviour, says Hamed Haddadi, a senior lecturer at the Dyson School of Design Engineering in London, who is featured in the documentary.

"Once you have the ability to perform these activities on millions and millions of people [in] real time, then you have this uncontrolled superpower to nudge these individuals towards buying specific products, clicking on specific articles, believing in certain ideologies," he says. "[It's] large-scale manipulation of the society." 

We've invited Amazon into our homes with Alexa

In almost six years since it debuted, Amazon's virtual assistant Alexa has been providing hundreds of millions of us with weather updates, playing our music and switching on our lights with a simple voice command. 

But the technology's ability to record our conversations has raised concerns. Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, says Amazon is branching out into our real lives very aggressively.

Amazon: What They Know About Us - Listening

3 years ago
Duration 0:48
With Amazon's launch of 'Alexa,' the personal assistant, the company suddenly had the power to have a mic in every home. As one professor puts it, voice allows the gathering of the most predictive datasets of all.

With its plans for increased automation in every room of our homes, Amazon's information-gathering potential is endless. The company has evolved from bookseller to online retail behemoth to one of the biggest data-mining entities in the world. 

The potential for a surveillance state is around the corner

Amazon has invested in other technologies like Ring doorbell camera, which allows users to see who is at their front door. Its video streams are being used to create a neighbourhood watch scheme, which Amazon has shared with local law enforcement agencies. It has made the company a partner in the surveillance and policing industry. 

Amazon is also developing a fleet of delivery drones which offers airborne home surveillance, detecting doors left open, broken windows, graffiti and people inside buildings. 

Amazon staff are so alarmed that they've written anonymously to the boss. "Our company should not be in the surveillance business. We should not be in the policing business," says one. "It really concerns me to know that my work could be going towards … the creation and expansion of the surveillance state," says another in the film.

We're moving quickly to a real-life version of George Orwell's 1984 and allowing one company to have an incredible amount of power with little or no oversight, claims James Marcus, one of the former employees interviewed in the film. 

Zuboff adds, "We're now contributing to systems that are fundamentally at odds with democracy and at odds with human freedom."

Watch Amazon: What They Know About Us on The Passionate Eye

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