Amazon has Been Lobbying Hard Against Privacy Protections – Mostly with Success; Who’s Smiling Now?

Posted on Nov 24, 2021 by Glyn Moody

Recently, this blog explored the allegations by 17 US states that Google had abused its monopoly power to stifle competition, and delayed the EU’s ePrivacy legislation. Hard on its heels comes a major report from Reuters that Amazon has lobbied hard against data protection in the US, mostly with success. In a way, that’s not so surprising. As recent stories on Privacy News Online have detailed, the company that began as an online bookseller has expanded its product line to include a number of devices that pose a serious threat to users’ privacy. Chief among these are the Alexa “smart” speakers, the Ring home surveillance system, and the Halo wearable device. More recent moves include a drone for the home, and a domestic robot. An early memo cited by the Reuters article reveals that behind Amazon’s trademark smile lie some serious teeth:

A draft version asserted that “journalists and policymakers should respect Amazon as a force for good” because it improves customers’ lives and creates “millions of jobs and broader economic prosperity.”

As executives edited the draft, Herdener summed up a central goal in a margin note: “We want policymakers and press to fear us,” he wrote. He described this desire as a “mantra” that had united department leaders in a Washington strategy session.

The Amazon department tasked with spreading that fear grew from two dozen employees in 2015 to around 250 today. As well as wielding sticks, Amazon offers carrots. For example, to encourage politicians to support an Amazon-drafted privacy bill in Virginia, the company increased its political donations from $27,750 in 2016 to $277,500 last year. According to the new report, consumer advocates were not consulted, and only found out about the bill shortly before it was passed. In addition, Amazon has registered at least 180 lobbyists in 44 US states.

The Reuters investigation makes clear that the voice recognition capabilities of Alexa are central to Amazon’s future ambitions. Jeff Bezos said that it had the potential to be the fourth “pillar” of Amazon’s business, along with its online shopping, Amazon Prime loyalty club, and the Amazon Web Services cloud computing division. Already, according to the article, around 69% of smart speaker users in the US, some 64 million people, use devices from Amazon. But it is not the sales of Alexa units themselves that is important: according to Reuters, Bezos has admitted that Amazon has often sold the devices for less than cost. What is most valuable is the data the Alexa system gathers from its users.

It’s possible to get an idea of the data that Amazon is pulling in from Alexa and other sources by requesting an account’s data. Amazon says:

We will provide your information to you as soon as we can. Usually, this should not take more than a month. In exceptional cases, for example if a request is more complex or if we are processing a high volume of requests, it might take longer, but if so we will notify you that there will be a delay.

Several journalists working on the Reuters story obtained their data, and even they were shocked by the quantity and granularity of the information Amazon held about them. For example, one reporter found that Amazon held more than 90,000 recordings that Alexa devices had made of family members since 2017. Alexa devices were also able to access data from iPhones and other non-Amazon systems, including one reporter’s iPhone calendar entries, complete with the names of the people he was to contact.

This exposes the central problem with Amazon’s Alexa systems: most people – even relatively savvy ones – don’t realize how much personal data the devices gather. Key to addressing the data protection issues this raises is to make people aware, and to give them the choice as to whether to allow that information to be gathered constantly. The Reuters investigation reveals that the main thrust of Amazon’s lobbying activities was stopping that happening.

The company’s principal argument seems to be that asking for consent would be too “confusing” for users – if Amazon really thinks that, it shows that it has a very poor opinion of its customers’ intelligence. A simple yes/no question asking whether Alexa may gather and store detailed personal data doesn’t seem that hard to answer. More specifically, Amazon is quoted in the article as saying that consumer consent requirements in a Californian bill could “negatively affect the accessibility of these devices for all customers, including those with disabilities.” Again, that seems rather insulting:

Three representatives of leading national disability-rights organizations told Reuters that devices such as Alexa can help people with disabilities live more independently. They said, however, that individuals with disabilities have the same privacy concerns as anyone else and should not be used by corporate lobbyists as a shield against regulation.

The Reuters article is valuable for spelling out in detail how Amazon has “gutted legislation in two dozen states seeking to give consumers more control over their data”. It also reminds people just how much personal information Alexa systems and other Amazon devices are gathering every second that they are in use.

Perhaps the most useful aspect is that it confirms that the voice-recognition systems of Alexa are key to the future plans of Amazon. It suggests that the aim is to move more or less everything to voice-driven activation, on the basis that giving verbal orders is the most natural way for most people to control things. Such a move may well make such devices as popular as the Alexa smart speakers today. However, it will also lead inevitably to Amazon sweeping up even more details of people’s daily lives, including their most intimate moments. Putting that rich data together will allow Amazon to build up an even more complete profile of who users are, what they do, what they think, and what they want. The new knowledge of Amazon’s likely plans makes it even more imperative to give users the right to opt out from this constant surveillance – and to thwart Amazon’s hitherto highly-successful lobbying to stop that happening.

Featured image by Amazon.