I’ve been a customer since 2017, and rely on it for everything from grass seed to birthday gifts.
There are Echo speakers dotted throughout my home, Ring cameras inside and out, a Fire TV set-top box in the living room and an ageing Kindle e-reader by my bedside.
I submitted a subject data access request, asking Amazon to disclose everything it knows about me
Scanning through the hundreds of files I received in response, the level of detail is, in some cases, mind-bending.
One database contains transcriptions of al l 52, 90 interactions my family has had with the virtual assistant Alexa. Audio clips of the recordings are also provided.
(60 requests to play Let It Go, flag my daughter’s infatuation with Disney’s Frozen.
Other late-night music requests to the bedroom Echo, might provide a clue to a more adult activity.
Clicking on another file reveals 2, (product searches I had carried out within its store since . There are more than 88 supplementary columns for each one, containing information such as what device would have been using, how many items I subsequently clicked on, and a string of numbers that hint at my location.
One spreadsheet actually triggers a warning message saying it is too big for my software to handle. It contains details of the 100, Kindle interactions I’ve had since 2020, including the exact time of day for each tap. An associated document divides up my reading sessions for each e-book, timing each to the millisecond.
And on it goes.
endeavor was timed to coincide with a BBC Panorama documentary I’ve been involved with, which tracks Amazon’s rise through the prism of it being a data-collector.
“They happen to sell products, but they are a data company,” says James Thomson, one of the former executives interviewed.
“Each opportunity to interact with a customer is another opportunity to collect data.”
And he qualifies this by saying Amazon mustn’t violat e people trust in the process.
Yet as the company continues to grow, and expand into new activities, there are calls from both inside and outside Amazon to keep its data-feasting obsession in check.
Sleeping Lady resort is about a two -hour drive from Seattle.
The name comes from the shape of the mountains that tower above its wooden cabins.
When Bezos bussed Amazon’s staff there for a brainstorm in January , it lived up to its Icicle Road address. A storm meant some missed the first evening’s events.
Before joining, he had published more than 300 scientific articles, co-founded one of the first music recommendation systems, and worked on an application to analyze online trades in real-time.
Amazon made him his first chief scientist.
“I had weekly meetings… with people, whoever wanted to stop by, where we just looked at clickstream histories in the evening, with beer and pizza , to wrap our brains around why would people actually do this, why on Earth would they click here, ”he rememb ers.
Clickstreams are the digital breadcrumb trail which Amazon follows to see which sites users come from, how they travel through its own pages and where they go to next.
(Amazon’s response to my data request did not contain my own clickstream history, although the firm has provided
Bezos and Selenger sitting on Weigend’s bed: “I don’t know how that picture happened, I know that picture is in my bedroom in my bed at my home and nobody really is clear how Jeff Bezos got in my bed “
Ring’s privacy notice states that personal information is used to “perform analytics including market and consumer research…. [and to] operate, evaluate, develop, manage and improve our business, ”via in-house tools as well as third-party services.
(I asked Ring for my data to see exactly what this involves, but it has yet to provide it.)
While much media coverage of Ring has centered on concerns it is helping the police to create a “surveillance state”, campaigners have recently turned their attention to the data it gathers about owners.
“Even when this information is not misused and employed for precisely its stated purpose (in most cases marketing), this can lead to a whole host of social ills, ”claims the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which carried out a recent study .
Ring counters that the data helps it to deliver better experiences.
Those experiences will soon include Alexa.
Later this year, the virtual assistant will be able to tell delivery drivers where to leave a package or take a message for the homeowner, if they do not reply themselves.
And even smart devices that don’t have Alexa built in, can typically be controlled by it – and in turn provide Amazon with further details about users’ day-to-day activities.
“It’s moving unbelievably quickly, ”says Daniel Rausch, Amazon’s smart home vice president.
“In just the first four months of  we went from 52, to , Devices that Alexa is compatible with. ”
He adds that privacy and security are “at the heart” of the initiative.
(For example, Alexa-enhanced devices light up to show when they are in listen mode. () It’s worth noting that my data request turned up about 1, (recordings that appear to have been accidental activations.)
Over time, Amazon has made it easier to review and delete voice histories.
You can now also opt out of letting humans listen back and c heck recordings to improve the service.
But Prof Zuboff raises concerns about whether people realise just how rich this new stream of data is.
Some people use more than one platform, so the figures total more than (%)
Some people use more than one platform, so the figures total more than (%)
“From voice one can learn so many things about what a person cares about. What they’re thinking, how they’re engaging with their family, what their emotional state is, ”says the psychologist.
“There are also ways of breaking down and doing voice analysis, where you get things like cadence and pitch and all these other very fine-grained variables that give us insight into human emotion and sentiment.
“These things are very highly predictive of future behavior.”
Even so, skeptics say there’s a bigger point: consumers are scattering internet-connected microphones and cameras across their homes without necessarily thinking through the implications.
“We all need private spaces where we’re not observed,” says venture capitalist Ro ger McNamee, who first met Bezos in the mid – 225 s when he sat in on a pitch Amazon’s leader made to a Silicon Valley fund.
“Somewhere we can be our true selves without fear of being exposed or being exploited.
“It is the business strategy of Amazon with Alexa, but also with Ring doorbells, to take these sanctuaries and convert them into public spaces.
“People think: ‘Hey I give up a little personal data for a service I really like. ‘
“There was a time when that was [true]. But what’s going on now is much more invasive and much more manipulative. ”
Amazon, however, says this misrepresents its efforts.
chief Dave Limp says if it ever betrayed its customers, they could switch to a rival. Alexa might be the market leader, but it’s far from being the only AI on call.
“We all have phones in and around us, and they can do all the [same] things,” he says.
“They can wake up when you say their wake-words, they have cameras on them. So that world exists. ”
And he adds:“ We don ‘t collect data for data sake. ”
“ We would collect data on behalf of customers when we think we can invent something new for them or we can build a feature or service that benefits them in positive ways. ”
Today, many of the data-interpreting techniques pioneered by Amazon have become commonplace.
That’s in part because it built a business – Amazon Web Services – around selling them.
It began as a small initiative to share know- how with other website operators.
“And [Jeff] said: ‘You know what? Let’s do it and let’s let them surprise us. ‘”
Developers were soon asking AWS to offer them computing power and storage in addition to tools for specific tasks, so it expanded.
Frederick likens this to providing the roads and electricity grid for a new country, saving individual enterprises the bother.
“Other companies did not need to basically go through and recreate everything themselves,” he explains.
The CIA and the UK’s Ministry of Justice are now among AWS’s many clients. So are some of Amazon’s biggest rivals, including Sainsbury’s, Apple, Netflix and the BBC. They trust the firm’s assurances that it can’t peek into their data.
As a consequence, it’s now practically impossible to go about the day without enriching Amazon in some way.
“I bet it’s not impossible,” jokes Matt Garman, one of AWS’s current leaders. “You could probably live in a cave or something like that.”
To stay ahead of its rivals, AWS continually rolls out new tools.
One, a facial recognition service called Rekognition, has become deeply controversial because it has been promoted to law enforcers.
It s not clear how many are using it.
But one Oregon- based Sheriff’s office confirmed it’s using the tool to match images obtained of suspects against those of , (mug shots it holds.)
“Nobody will ever be arrested or detained simply based on a facial-recognition result,” one of its officers says.
But civil right activists claim it could lead to wrongful arrests.
So, while it shares data about what keywords are most popular, it doesn’t reveal what individual users are looking for or any of their other personal details.
at least one ex-executive has doubts about the scale of the business.
“It’s great to see the other big digital advertising platforms have some competition,” comments John Rossman.
“But I do think there are fair questions about the balance.
“The top of the list is always advertising-driven. It’s not truly like the highest-rated product or the product that serves my history the best. ”
There’s also been a backlash from smaller companies.
They complain they must now pay to keep their products “above the scroll”.
And that means either allowing their own profit to be squeezed, or passing on the extra cost to customers.
US competition watchdogs are currently probing Amazon’s treatment of its smaller suppliers, and this could be a flashpoint.
“You don’t buy very many vegetables because we have all of your grocery shopping history.
“We’ve got products for that.”
And he predicts this would be a trigger point.
“When those types of things start to happen, I believe it will become much more apparent that we have a major major data problem here, He say s.
People love convenience and Amazon has prospered by obsessing about how to anticipate our wants before we’re even aware of them.
So, society now has a choice: continue letting Amazon learn ever more about us in the name of better service, or consider forcing it to divide up its data – and maybe even itself – to prevent it knowing too much.
(Author: Leo Kelion)
Producer: James Percy Onl ine Editor: Kathryn Westcott
Illustration: Emma Lynch
Panorama Executive Producer: Karen Wightman
Panorama Team: Matthew Hill, Jenny Parks, Laura Fitzpatrick
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