A look at the intimate details Amazon knows about us


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November 19 – As a Virginia lawmaker, Ibraheem Samirah studied internet privacy issues and debated how to regulate the collection of personal data by tech companies. Still, he was stunned to learn all the details of the information Amazon.com Inc collected on him.

The e-commerce giant had more than 1,000 contacts from his phone. It contained recordings of the exact part of the Quran that Samirah, who was raised as a Muslim, had listened to on December 17 of last year. The company was aware of all the research he had done on his platform, including a search for books on “progressive community organizing” and other sensitive health-related surveys that he believed to be private.

“Are they selling products or are they spying on ordinary people? Asked Samirah, a Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

Samirah was among the few lawmakers in Virginia to oppose an industry-friendly Amazon-drafted privacy bill that passed earlier this year. At Reuters’ request, Samirah asked Amazon to disclose the data it collected on him as a consumer.

The company gathers a vast array of information about its U.S. customers, and it began making this data available to anyone on demand early last year, after attempting and failing to defeat a demanding 2018 California measure. such disclosures. (US Amazon customers can get their data by filling out a form on Amazon.com.)

Seven Reuters journalists also obtained their files from Amazon. The data reveals the company’s ability to amass surprisingly intimate portraits of individual consumers.

Amazon collects consumer data 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 inside homes, and Ring security cameras capture every visitor.

Such information can reveal a person’s height, weight and health; their ethnicity (via cues contained in the voice data) and their political leanings; their reading and buying habits; their whereabouts on a given day, and sometimes the people they have met.

A journalist’s file revealed that Amazon collected more than 90,000 Alexa records from family members between December 2017 and June 2021, an average of around 70 per day. The recordings included details such as the names of the journalist’s young children and their favorite songs.

Amazon captured the kids by asking them how they could convince their parents to let them “play” and getting step-by-step instructions from Alexa on how to convince their parents to buy them video games. Be fully prepared, Alexa advised the children, to rebut common parenting arguments such as “too violent”, “too expensive” and “you are not doing well enough in school.” The information came from a third-party program used by Alexa called “wikiHow” which provides practical advice from more than 180,000 articles, according to the Amazon website.

Amazon said it doesn’t own wikiHow, but that Alexa sometimes responds to requests with information from websites.

Some recordings involved conversations between family members using Alexa devices to communicate in different parts of the house. Several recordings have captured children apologizing to their parents after being disciplined. Others picked up the kids, ages 7, 9 and 12, asking Alexa questions about terms like “pansexual.”

In one recording, a child asks, “Alexa, what is a vagina? In another: “Alexa, what does bondage mean?”

The reporter did not realize that Amazon was storing the records until the company disclosed the data it was tracking on the family.

Amazon says its Alexa products are designed to record as little as possible, starting with the trigger word “Alexa” and stopping when the user’s command ends. Recordings of the journalist’s family, however, have occasionally captured longer conversations.

In a statement, Amazon said scientists and engineers are working to improve the technology and avoid false triggers that prompt registration. The company said it alerts customers that recordings are stored when they set up Alexa accounts.

Amazon said it collects personal data to improve products and services and to personalize them for individuals. Asked about recordings of Samirah listening to the Quran on Amazon’s audiobook service, Amazon said the data allows customers to pick up where they left off from a previous session.

The only way for customers to delete much of this personal data is to close their account, Amazon said. The company said it keeps certain information, such as purchase history, after the account is closed to comply with legal obligations.

Amazon said it allows customers to adjust their settings on voice assistants and other services to limit the amount of data collected. Alexa users, for example, can prevent Amazon from backing up their recordings or automatically delete them periodically. And they can disconnect their contacts or calendars from their smart speakers if they don’t want to use Alexa’s calling or scheduling features.

A customer can opt out of having their Alexa records reviewed, but they must go through a series of menus and two warnings that say, “If you turn this off, speech recognition and new features may not work well for you.” Asked about the warnings, Amazon said consumers who limit data collection might not be able to customize certain features, such as music playback.

Samirah, 30, got an Amazon Alexa-enabled smart speaker during the holiday season last year. He said he only used it for three days before returning it after realizing he was collecting recordings. “It really sketched me out,” he said.

The device had already gathered all of its phone contacts, as part of a feature that allows users to make calls through the device. Amazon said Alexa users must allow the company access to phone contacts. Customers need to turn off access to phone contacts, not just delete the Alexa app, in order to delete their Amazon account records.

Samirah said he was also pissed off by Amazon having detailed recordings of his audiobook and Kindle reading sessions. Finding information about his listening to the Quran leaked in his Amazon file, he said, made Samirah reflect on the history of US police and intelligence agencies monitoring Muslims for suspected terrorist links after the attacks. attacks of September 11, 2001.

“Why do they need to know this? ” He asked. Samirah’s term ends in January, after losing a candidacy for re-election earlier this year.

Sometimes law enforcement agencies research customer data from technology companies. Amazon discloses that it is complying with search warrants and other legal court orders requesting data the company keeps on an account while objecting to “overly broad or otherwise inappropriate requests.”

Amazon data for the three years ending June 2020, the latest available, shows the company at least partially complied with 75% of subpoenas, search warrants and other court orders requesting data on the American customers. The company fully complied with 38% of these requests.

Amazon stopped disclosing how often it complies with such requests last year. When asked why, Amazon said it broadened the scope of the U.S. report to make it global and “streamlined” each country’s information on law enforcement investigations.

The company said it was obligated to comply with “valid and binding orders” but that its goal was to release “the minimum” required by law.

Amazon’s 3,500-word privacy policy, which links to over 20 other pages related to privacy and user settings, gives the entire company the flexibility to collect data. Amazon said the policy describes its collection, use and sharing of data “in a way that is easy for consumers to understand.”

This information can get very personal. Amazon’s Kindle e-readers, for example, accurately track a user’s reading habits, another journalist’s Amazon data file showed. The disclosure included recordings of more than 3,700 reading sessions since 2017, including time-stamped – down to the millisecond – logs of the books read. Amazon also tracks highlighted or searched words, pages turned, and promotions viewed.

It showed, for example, that a family member read “The Mitchell Sisters: A Complete Romance Series” on August 8, 2020, from 4:52 p.m. to 7:36 p.m., flipping through 428 pages.

Florian Schaub, a privacy researcher at the University of Michigan, said companies are not always transparent about what they do with user data. “We have to rely on Amazon to do the right thing,” he said, “rather than making sure the data can’t be misused.”

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