From customers' reading habits on Amazon Kindle to the groceries they like to buy on Prime, Amazon has perfected the art of tracking. The software is so good at predicting user preferences that third parties can hire its algorithms through Amazon Forecast.
But it doesn't stop there. The big tech titan has purchased more than 100 companies since it was created. The firms enable it to gather more consumer data to inform predictions. Amazon’s technology has shifted from simply waiting for and responding to your requests to anticipating them. In a demo of Amazon's Alexa, when you ask the voice assistant to book movie tickets, it follows up by asking whether you want to make a dinner reservation or call an Uber.
But "it is potentially problematic if Amazon is sharing data between the different companies it owns," Simon David Hirsbrunner, from the International Center for Ethics in the Sciences (IZEW) of the University of Tübingen, told DW, as consumer data is collected in different contexts. "Amazon’s data scientists might not be able to identify and manage privacy issues dependent on these specific contexts."
Amazon works with health care provider
Earlier this year, Amazon closed a $3.9 billion deal to buy One Medical, a US primary healthcare provider with 815,000 members. One Medical has 15 years' worth of medical and health-system data that Amazon can tap to help it create AI-based health products, target interventions and predict costs in the future.
But privacy advocates have riled against the acquisition, even though laws ban the company from sharing personal health information with other parties without the user's permission. This is due in part to Amazon's spotty track record of data protection. A 2020 investigation by the US newspaper Wall Street Journal revealed Amazon employees used data about independent sellers to develop competing products – in breach of its own policies. In 2021, it was fined $886.6 million by the National Commission for Data Protection (CNPD) for allegedly breaking EU data protection laws.
"The way Amazon is aggressively expanding into even more sensitive areas like health means we will likely have little choice in the way different pieces of data are connected within Amazon," Garfield Benjamin, senior lecturer in sociology at Solent University, told DW.
But Amazon asserts that it – and the companies it has acquired – use and share customers’ personal data only as permitted by law and its privacy notice, with an aim to powering its products and services for its customers.
"Like other retailers, we look at sales and store data to provide our customers with the best possible experience," Amazon told DW. "The suit that’s referenced was made public nearly two years ago. We strongly disagree with and have appealed the CNPD’s ruling, since the decision relating to how we show customers relevant advertising relies on subjective and untested interpretations of European privacy law."
Robot vacuum under scrutiny
Collecting data about the state of Americans' carpets may then sound relatively harmless. But Amazon's swoop last year on iRobot, the American maker of Roomba, a robot that hoovers up dirt around the house, is also worrying EU officials. Their concern? Whether this ability to see inside people's homes will give Amazon an unfair advantage over rivals.
Data security advocates have complained to the European Commission that the $1.7 billion deal risks the invasion of privacy, as the Roomba takes pictures around living areas.
iRobot says claims that iRobot's products are used for surveillance are pure fiction.
"Security and privacy features are built into [iRobot] products from the beginning of the development process," an iRobot spokersperson told DW, adding that photos are only taken and shared if the user consents, and that photos shared with iRobot are used to improve the vacuum's funtionality.
But the Amazon factor has consumer groups worried, too. An anti-monopoly coalition has urged the European Commission to block the deal, which has yet to be closed.
"Amazon already monitors our doorsteps and listens in on our dinner conversations, and the proposed merger will put Amazon inside our living rooms,” the coalition said last month.
Video doorbell poses privacy problems
Amazon's video-enabled doorbell Ring records every movement detected on people's doorsteps, according to a 2020 BBC investigation into the device, which Amazon bought for $1 billion in 2018. Even the model of the phone and the mobile network used to view the videos are stored, the investigation found, though Amazon does give customers options for scheduled deletion of history and data, including video, from Ring devices.
Amazon gave footage recorded by Ring to US police 11 times in 2022 without the owners' consent, according to a published letter to the company in July of that year. Ring said that the videos were shared because of an "emergency”, but some opponents have raised concerns about how police may attempt to use the footage.
Device ecosystem creates clearer image of customer
The more of Amazon’s services consumers use and combine – whether the Ring doorbell, Echo smart speaker or Prime streaming service – the fuller the picture of their needs becomes.
"Amazon will be able to find ways to use insights from all its customers’ data to fuel the growth of the company,” potentially using its data assets and dominant role as an online intermediary to “take over another segment of the economy, in the US and around the world," said Katharina Kopp, deputy director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
Acquiring other companies is about bringing affordable, innovative products to market, Amazon says, not gathering data.
"The privacy of customer information is a top priority across all of our products and services—it always has, and it always will be," a spokesperson told DW.
"For example, Amazon was one of the very first retailers to allow customers to view their browsing and purchase history and manage which items could be used for product recommendations," a spokesperson told DW. "Customers can also delete their Alexa voice recordings at any time, or choose not to have them saved at all."
In an ideal world, Pernille Tranberg, an independent advisor in data democracy and founder of the Danish non-profit organization DataEthics.eu, told DW, proper handling and storage of personal data should not be the responsibility of the consumer.
"But it’s not an ideal world," she said.
Edited by: Kristie Pladson
This piece was updated to with responses from iRobot and Amazon.
A previous version of this article stated that the European Commission was investigating Amazon's potential acquisition of iRobot. It has been updated to clarify that an investigation has not been opened, though complaints against the merger have been filed with the Commission.