Jeff Bezos has a hidden weapon: your data. While Amazon’s retail empire is built on a complex web of infrastructure and murky working practices, its selling success is based on an intricate knowledge of what millions of people buy and browse every day.
Amazon has been obsessed with your data since it was an online bookshop. Almost two decades ago the firm’s chief technology officer, Werner Vogels, said that the company tries to “collect as much information as possible” so it can provide people with recommendations. And, as Amazon has expanded, so has its data collection operation. “They happen to sell products, but they are a data company,” a former Amazon executive told the BBC in 2020.
Amazon knows a lot about you. Everything you do in Amazon’s ecosystem: from the thousands of searches you make on its app or website to every individual click, scroll and mouse movement you make. It’s a lot of data – and that’s just the beginning of it. People who have requested their data from Amazon have been sent hundreds of files, including a decade of their shopping history and thousands of voice clips recorded by Alexa devices.
“The reason online shopping through Amazon is so convenient is because the company has spent years consolidating its power and reach,” says Sara Nelson, director of the corporate data exploitation programme at civil liberties group Privacy International. “The company is in a position to collect huge amounts of data – through its shopping platform, but also through its Ring cameras, Alexa voice assistants, web services, delivery services, streaming services, and its many other business streams”. And now Amazon is moving into healthcare – something that Nelson says is concerning.
Amazon’s data collection is also reportedly putting it on the wrong side of regulators. On June 10, the Wall Street Journal reported data protection regulators in Luxembourg, where Amazon’s European headquarters is based, are preparing a $425 million GDPR fine in response to the way it uses people’s personal data – although no specific details were provided and an Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the potential fine. Anti-competition regulators are also looking at the company’s use of data. And governments are demanding more data from Amazon, including information from Ring and Alexa recordings.
What Amazon knows about you
Let’s start with Amazon’s privacy notice. At more than 4,400 words it’s hardly surprising that most people don’t read it, but it does clearly lay out what Amazon does with your data. Broadly, the information that Amazon collects about you comes from three sources. These are: the data you give it when you use Amazon (and its other services, such as reading Kindle books), the data it can collect automatically (information about your phone and your location) and, finally, information it gets from third-parties (credit checks to find out if your account is fraudulent, for example).
The ultimate goal of all this data collection? To help sell you more things. Amazon will use your personal information – and everything it can learn about your likes and dislikes – to show you recommendations for stuff it thinks you might buy. More broadly it can also get a sense of its most popular sellers and people’s shopping behaviour.
“Personal data about shopping is incredibly sensitive,” says Carissa Véliz, an associate professor at the University of Oxford’s Institute for Ethics. “It can tell you about a person’s health status, their political tendencies, their sexual practices, and much more. People buy all kinds of things on Amazon, from books and movies to health-related items. Add to that personal data from Alexa, and it gets even more concerning.”
It also uses information, such as your location, to make sure the things you buy actually get delivered to you. “We process your personal information to operate, provide, and improve the Amazon Services that we offer our customers,” the company’s privacy notice says. It also broadly sets out the legal arguments for all the data it collects.
Let’s look at the information you give to Amazon. You should assume that everything you do on Amazon’s website, apps or any of its products is saved in some way. Every order you place on Amazon, every show you watch on Prime, every song you listen to on Amazon Music and every request you make of Alexa is tracked and stored.
Amazon’s privacy notice details that it may automatically collect your IP address; login details; the location of computer; errors your device logs when using its services; your app preferences; cookie details; identifiers linked to your phone or computer; and all the URLs that you click, including page interaction information “such as scrolling, clicks, and mouse-overs”. It’s not uncommon for companies to collect and record all the interactions you make with their products – they can be used to make them better or identify bugs – but this information quickly adds up. Amazon says the data it collects can be used to improve its services as well as complying with legal obligations and other purposes. “We are not in the business of selling our customers’ personal information to others,” its privacy notice says.
The final type of information Amazon collects about you is that from third-parties. This can include updated delivery addresses if a delivery company finds there’s a problem with the one you provided; account and purchase information from “merchants with which we operate co-branded businesses”; information about “interactions” with Amazon’s subsidiaries (there’s a lot of them and they have their own privacy policies); information about devices you’ve linked with Alexa; and credit history it gets as part of its efforts to detect fraud.
It’s impossible to stop Amazon tracking you completely – if you’re going to shop with Amazon then Amazon will collect your data – but there are a few steps you can take to limit the information that it can gather and use. Some of these are provided by Amazon itself, while others involve tweaking your browser settings and using other tools.