Before you delve into the many nuances that make up the services and products available to you from Amazon, it’s a good idea to know how this establishment handles its daily business duties. The evolution of this company rivals that of Walmart. The Amazon platform sells just about everything you can think of a few things you might not even consider. Some say it indirectly skirts the law, but there are completely legitimate and descent mechanics in play that allows transactions to continue. These issues don’t directly involve any invasions of privacy, but they do reveal the level of power Amazon has achieved over the years.
Issues with Amazon
There have been a number of cases involving entities selling fake merchandise on Amazon. While Amazon has taken action on this issue, it’s still an example of how certain issues can easily slip through Amazon’s systems without detection. This particular example is one issue that Amazon has been criticized for, but there is another problem that we believe has much more serious implications.
Amazon’s Biggest Privacy Issue: Alexa
One issue that gives Amazon one of its ultimate advantages over its nearest competitor is that Amazon sells a number of electronic devices that it produces along with the software and services offered on the devices. Amazon’s control over these devices and their software allows the company to operate with very little transparency. Lawmakers have inquired into Amazon on multiple occasions to get a better understanding of how much and what types of data Amazon collects through its Echo (and other) devices. Regulators want to know how much these devices are listening to people, how many times these devices and their software have failed, and what happens to the data after it gets sent to Amazon. While these kinds of questions can have complex technical answers, the basis of what happens with people’s data should be a simple answer.
It’s common knowledge that Amazon is collecting data about our conversations and interactions with Echo devices. To further complicate things, Amazon’s data collection methods have proven to have bugs that may compromise users’ data privacy.
Amazon has successfully sold us these devices by showing us the conveniences they offer, without the privacy risks that accompany them. People have also been convinced that if Amazon is unable to listen in on everyone’s conversations, they would be somehow giving up some level of public security. This begs the question then: Could Amazon identify potential security threats through a criminal’s Echo device?
In general, the masses are not so comfortable with the idea of being surveyed from the outside, but people should be able to decide how they are recorded. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get a good idea of what is going on inside of a company as large as Amazon. Determining what happens to your data after it enters Amazon’s servers can be extremely difficult, due to vague or unclear disclosure documents.
Amazon processes a large portion of the information that is transmitted across the internet through its software, Amazon Web Services and visitors to its websites. Amazon uses this data to feed its artificial intelligence systems, to power its marketing decisions and to improve its services. Amazon also collects data from its Amazon devices, including Echo and Fire Tablet devices.
Amazon Fire OS
Mozilla included Amazon’s Fire HD Tablet in its “*Privacy Not Included” gift guide for the 2019 holiday season. People may not consider the data they are sharing when they use tablets and other non-desktop computing devices. Amazon’s Fire HD has a camera, a microphone and location tracking capabilities which all allow for Amazon to collect information about how you’re interacting with the device (or even around the device). Amazon does allow users to reach out and request to have their data deleted, but doesn’t have a designated data deletion practice.
One of our biggest concerns with Fire tablets is that they are marketed to children. There are a number of settings that control the device’s privacy and advertising. According to one review, these settings were frustrating and difficult to navigate. The Kids Edition of the Fire tablet has parental controls which can help keep your kids from visiting shady websites. These devices should do more to prevent the apps on the devices from collecting data from young children.
There’s more than millions upon dozens of millions of Echo devices in the homes of families across the United States. And, they are very stealthy devices with cameras and microphones in them that always take in data about their surroundings. This technology basically listens all the time but only records on command. The problems come from Alexa catching an activation phrase accidentally and recording when users are not aware. It happens often enough that tons of data gets sent to the cloud all of the time. This is where conversations are processed and stored away. This alone is not such a cause for concern, because anything that Alexa hears can be erased.
The Protocols and Systems in Place
Everything that Alexa and Echo devices hear and record can be deleted, but that obviously doesn’t make these tools privacy-friendly. Amazon is constantly developing its artificial intelligence systems, which are still in the early phases of development. For Amazon to improve the speech recognition capabilities of its systems, Amazon employees could listen to your recordings to try to decipher words or phrases that the system couldn’t recognize. There have been a number of reports that disclosed that Amazon employees had shared certain recordings because they thought they were funny or just interesting.
There are systems in place that help keep recordings isolated from identifying information about a given user. While Amazon has explained that it is serious about keeping people’s information private, consumers and critics are still concerned about Amazon sharing information with third parties with their own data security standards. Information collected from these devices can be linked device serial numbers, account numbers, and users’ first names. Apple and Google’s similar services and products offer more user control over how their data is collected, processed and stored.
The devices that people buy themselves and place in their homes are just one aspect of the data collection that Amazon does. These devices are under the users’ control and they have the power to unplug and disable them. Amazon’s data collection becomes an issue when it’s used in public places. If government agencies use Amazon’s facial recognition (which they already have), people could be monitored against their will or without their knowledge. As surveillance with Amazon tools becomes more widespread, the company will have data about nearly every behavior consumers do. This will ultimately let Amazon’s systems predict people’s behaviors. Not only is this invasive to a lot of people, but it also gives Amazon a ridiculously powerful ability to influence people’s buying behavior.
Interestingly, Amazon has a penchant for pushing the boundaries of legality while at the same time positioning itself to profit from law enforcement. For example, the facial recognition technology it works on is used by the U.S. ICE department in attempts to enforce immigration laws. And, there’s the talk of its selling of surveillance as a service to other government agencies such as the Pentagon. This is not so much an invasion of privacy, because it gets used in the public domain. What happens when government surveillance is combined with all the data that Amazon collections from Alexa devices, Ring doorbells and all of Amazon’s other services?
How To Keep Your Data Private on Amazon
When a company providing cutting-edge technology gets so big, there will inevitably be some criticism of how the company uses all of the data it collects. There are a few steps you can take to minimize your privacy risks with Amazon.
- Hide Your Amazon Public Profile
- Delete Your Alexa Recordings
- Make Your Product Lists Private
- Turn Off Amazon’s Browsing History
- Setup PIN for Alexa Devices
- Disconnect Your Kindle from Goodreads
- Turn Off Alexa Data Sharing
Privacy Versus Convenience
One of the big balancing acts around the internet is privacy vs. convenience. More data collection means that the service can optimize their service to your personal interests and preferences. Amazon has mastered using data to optimize its customers’ experiences. Many people are interested in protecting their data, but would not be willing to give up the amazing conveniences that Amazon offers.
Those who are especially serious about privacy can avoid Amazon altogether, but Amazon has worked its way into most people’s everyday life. Avoiding tracking by not using internet-connected devices is possible, but many, if not most, people’s jobs rely on these tools every day.
Even though Alexa and other Echo devices are always listening they aren’t supposed record everything. The information recorded doesn’t save to the device. It goes to the cloud, and the sounds devices do record can be deleted. Because this data is recorded, it’s in your best interest to get an idea of what the data could possibly reveal about you and others in your home. Deleting everything recorded from Alexa may lessen its ability to serve you, which unfortunately is the predicament we live in.