- Amazon collects data about consumers through its Alexa voice assistant, its e-commerce marketplace, Kindle e-readers, Audible audiobooks, its video and music platforms, home security cameras, and physical activity monitors.
As a Virginia legislator, Ibraheem Samirah has studied privacy issues on the Internet and discussed how to regulate the collection of personal data by technology companies. Still, he was stunned to learn all the details of the information Amazon.com Inc has collected about him.
The e-commerce giant had collected more than 1,000 contacts from his phone. He had records of the exact part of the Quran that Samirah, raised as a Muslim, had heard on December 17 of last year. The company was aware of all the searches he had done on its platform, including one for books on “progressive community organizing” and other sensitive health-related inquiries that he considered private.
“Are they selling products or are they spying on ordinary people?” Said Samirah, a Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates.
Samirah has been one of the few Virginia lawmakers to oppose a Virginia privacy bill, Business-friendly and written by Amazon, which was approved earlier this year. At the request of Reuters, Samirah asked Amazon to reveal the data it collected about him as a consumer.
The company collects a wide variety of information about its US customers, and began making that data available to everyone early last year, after trying and failing to suppress a 2018 California measure that requires these types of disclosures. (US Amazon customers can get their details by filling out a form on Amazon.com.)
Seven Reuters reporters also obtained their files from Amazon. The data reveals the company’s ability to produce surprisingly intimate portraits of individual consumers.
Amazon collects data about consumers through your Alexa voice assistant, your e-commerce marketplace, Kindle e-readers, Audible audiobooks, your video and music platforms, home security cameras, and physical activity monitors. Alexa-enabled devices make recordings inside people’s homes, and Ring security cameras they capture all the visitors.
This information can reveal a person’s height, weight and health, ethnicity (through clues contained in voice data) and your political leanings, your reading and shopping habits, your whereabouts on a given day and sometimes who you have met with.
A reporter’s dossier revealed that Amazon had collected more than 90,000 Alexa recordings of family members between December 2017 and June 2021, averaging about 70 daily. The recordings included details such as the names of the reporter’s young children and their favorite songs.
Amazon caught children asking how they could convince their parents to let them “play,” and receiving detailed instructions from Alexa on how to convince their parents to buy them video games. Prepare yourself well, Alexa advised the children, to refute the usual arguments of parents, such as “too violent”, “too expensive” and “you do not do well enough in school.” The information came from a third-party program used by Alexa called “wikiHow,” which offers practical advice from more than 180,000 articles, according to the Amazon website.
Amazon said it does not own wikiHow, but that Alexa sometimes responds to requests with information from websites.
Some recordings included conversations between family members using Alexa devices to communicate in different parts of the house. Multiple recordings captured children apologizing to their parents after being scolded. Others picked up the children, 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? ”.
The reporter did not realize that Amazon was storing the recordings before 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 wake word, “Alexa”, and stopping when the user’s command ends. However, the reporter’s family recordings sometimes captured longer conversations.
In a statement, Amazon said it has scientists and engineers working to improve the technology and prevent recordings from being triggered by mistake. The company said it alerts customers that recordings are stored when setting up Alexa accounts.
Amazon has said that it collects personal data to improve products and services and personalize them for people. When asked about the recordings of Samirah listening to the Quran on Amazon’s audiobook service, the company said that data allows customers to pick up where they left off in a previous session.
The only way for customers to delete much of this personal data is by closing their account, Amazon said. The company said it retains certain information, such as purchase history, after account closure 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 saving their recordings or automatically delete them on a regular basis. And they can disconnect their contacts or calendars from their smart speaker devices if they don’t want to use Alexa’s calling or scheduling features.
A customer can choose not to browse their Alexa recordings, but must navigate through a series of menus and two warnings that say: “If you disable this, speech recognition and new features may not work properly for you.” When asked about the warnings, Amazon said that consumers who limit data collection are left without the ability to customize some features, such as music playback.
Samirah, 30, got an Amazon Alexa-equipped smart speaker over the holiday season last year. He says he only wore it for three days before returning it after realizing it was collecting recordings. “It blew me away,” he said.
The device had already gathered all of their phone contacts, part of a feature that allows users to make calls through the device. Amazon said Alexa users must give permission for the company to access phone contacts. Customers must disable access to phone contacts, and not just delete the Alexa app, to clear their Amazon account records.
Samirah said she was also concerned that Amazon kept detailed records of her audiobook and Kindle reading sessions. Finding information about his listening to the Qur’an revealed in his Amazon file, he said, made Samirah think about the history of the American police and intelligence agencies. monitoring Muslims for suspected terrorist ties after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“Why do they need to know that?” He asked. Samirah’s term ends in January, after he lost his bid for re-election earlier this year.
Sometimes, law enforcement agencies ask tech companies for data about their customers. Amazon states that it complies with search warrants and other legal court orders that seek data that the company stores in an account, while opposing “excessively broad or inappropriate requests.”
Amazon’s data for the three years ending in June 2020, the latest available, shows that the company was at least partially compliant with 75% of subpoenas, search warrants and other court orders seeking data from US customers. The company fully complied with 38% of those requests.
Last year, Amazon stopped disclosing how often it complied with such requests. When asked why, Amazon said it had broadened the scope of the US report to make it global, and that it had “simplified” information from each country on law enforcement requests.
The company said that it is obliged to comply with “valid and binding orders”, but that its objective is to disclose “the minimum” required by law.
That information can be quite personal. Amazon Kindle e-readers, for example, accurately track users’ reading habits, as demonstrated by another journalist’s Amazon data file. The disclosure included records of more than 3,700 reading sessions since 2017, including records with timestamps – to the millisecond – of the books read. Amazon also tracks featured or searched words, pages passed, and promotions viewed by the user.
It shows, 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., turning 428 pages.
Florian Schaub, a privacy researcher at the University of Michigan, said that companies are not always transparent about what they do with user data. “We have to trust that Amazon does the right thing,” he said, “it is not enough to trust that data cannot be misused.”