© 2024 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Prime Effect: How Amazon Surveils The Public

Close-up of Ring Chime for Ring Video Doorbell system from Amazon in smart home. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
Close-up of Ring Chime for Ring Video Doorbell system from Amazon in smart home. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

If you’ve got Alexa, Amazon knows when you wake up, what groceries you order and what books you’ve read.

Amazon also may have cameras on your front door:

“They have such a sophisticated system of both … video cameras that are combing neighborhoods, and they have data that is being gathered through all our commerce activity,” Ramesh Srinivasan says.

And in Amazon delivery vans:

“Almost every time I look out my window, I see an Amazon Prime car combing my neighborhood,” Srinivasan says. “They are just basically a fleet of mobile surveillance devices.”

In our series The Prime Effect, we look at how Amazon is changing the way we shop, work and live.

Today, On Point: we’ll talk about what Amazon knows about your digital and physical life, surveillance and the world’s largest retailer.


Ramesh Srinivasan, professor in UCLA’s Department of Information Studies. Director of the UC Digital Cultures Lab. Author of “Beyond the Valley.” (@rameshmedia)

Jon Callas, director of technology projects at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (@joncallas)

Also Featured

Radd Rotello, community services officer for the Frisco Texas Police.

Interview Highlights

On data being harvested from Ring cameras

Ramesh Srinivasan: “It’s just stunning to me how we, the users of these technologies, are so in the dark when it comes to all of these processes. There is evidence that just up until April of 2021, there were 22,000 individual requests by law enforcement that were provided to Amazon around these Ring cameras. We don’t know which of these requests are going through, and which of them are not.

“What we do know, and John alluded to this earlier ,and I have a lot of love and respect for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is that the specificity, and depth and sort of comprehensiveness of that data that’s being gathered is occurring on a scale that has never occurred before. We’re talking at a level of skill and a level of intimacy. And we have seen a lot of false positives, problematic criminalization of people occur in cases where that was not actually the case.

“So my point again is that when I am a consumer and Amazon advertises itself, it proudly boasts of itself as the most consumer facing company. And I say, Hey, I want the convenience of a Ring system, I want the convenience of Echo. What I don’t realize is I’ve signed on to a level of surveillance and potential behavioral control and criminalization of myself and my neighbors that has never existed ever before.

“And so the value of all of that data is part of why Amazon is the most powerful company, I would say, in the world. And that value of the data helps both its corporate side, but its partnerships with the Department of Defense, with the military industrial complex, with law enforcement, gives it a whole other level of power as well. We had no idea that we were signing on to surveillance at this scale, and that is exactly what’s occurring on every single level when it comes to Amazon.”

Amazon could track me throughout my whole day. And then this could ostensibly be a revenue source for the company if they wanted to sell a service. Is that possible?

Ramesh Srinivasan: “Oh, without question. It’s possible. Amazon is operating with lush revenue streams in so many different pathways, not just its contracts with security, obviously its e-commerce platforms, its Amazon Web Services platform, which dominates every other competitor a couple times, twice as powerful as its competitors. And we all remember, or some of us may remember, when we used Amazon just to buy books.

“And in a sense, I sort of think of the Looney Tunes’ Acme Company that just dominates everything. Everything is done through Acme. This is where Amazon is attempting to head it. It is able to sort of manipulate that false distinction between privacy and security that we have, where it sort of proffers convenience and consumer facing sort of devices and services.

“But in reality, what it is attempting to do is to be inside our homes, potentially analyzing our bodies, biometrically. All around our neighborhoods, literally combing the streets, as I mentioned earlier. Everywhere. I’m looking out my window right now, I see an Amazon truck, sure enough. I wonder if it’s looking at me. And all the e-commerce data as well. So all of this can be aggregated. We also know that Amazon is using census data as well, external data sets.

“So the attempts here by Amazon are to basically be the mediating aspect of every aspect of our lives, every component of our lives. Our lives are the raw materials upon which Amazon as a corporation operates. So that is why we see Amazon extending itself in all of these different realms. And I just want to make the point that Amazon operates on the Internet and its delivery vehicles use our roads. Both of those are things that we, the American taxpayers paid for. Yet we have such little understanding, let alone power, over Amazon’s corporate activities.”

On what the public should know about Amazon’s reach 

Ramesh Srinivasan: ‘There are competitors to Amazon. There are people like ourselves who are coming out and raising some critical viewpoints. But I think that we need to understand, let’s look at where Amazon has gone over the past decade, even the past 20 years. And it’s astonishing how it’s entered all of these different realms, a company that doesn’t pay any taxes, whose founder and CEO is the wealthiest person in the history of the world or close to it.

“Look at its attempts to basically take over every single market it can. And also take over our personal lives and our relationships with security, as well as our taxpayer money, which over 50% go to the Department of Defense. So I think this is more aspirational by Amazon than the current reality. But I think it’s extremely — and my goal is to not be sort of a doomsayer, but to arm the public with the tools where we, at the minimum, have a right to understand what Amazon is doing with all of this data that it’s collecting about our lives.

“And John made a very important point about the facial recognition technologies. We can see how facial recognition technologies might be compared with databases or data sets for mug shots of criminals. Or, for example, the Department of Homeland Security, which has a massive contract with Amazon, was using its facial recognition technology with ICE raids, immigration and Customs Enforcement rates right near where I live here in Los Angeles.

“And misidentifying people who are actually documented, as undocumented. But it’s too late. These people are already criminalized as a result of these mistakes being built by this technology. And so there are other issues at play there. But my point is we have given this private corporation so much power, and I don’t want us to blame ourselves. I want us to be armed with the tools so that we can check and balance the situation.”

On concerns about cameras on Amazon delivery vans

Ramesh Srinivasan: “These cameras, as you mentioned, are not only inside these vans in a way that can only quite realistically promote anxiety amongst drivers who themselves are not unionized employees at this company, but also that their cameras are also external facing cameras that are, as we talked about earlier, combing data about neighborhoods. You know, perhaps the logistics of where these Amazon delivery vehicles are traveling is not simply based on the efficiency of providing us with the goods that we order, but also in gathering sophisticated data about various neighborhoods.

“So, you know, these cameras are recording pedestrians, homes, other vehicles, license plates. And I think more generally, when we want to talk about Amazon’s relationship with human beings, specifically its laborers, we can understand quite clearly that Amazon’s primary and pretty much seemingly sole objective is to extract as much as possible from these laborers.

“We see evidence of wristbands, for example, with Amazon fulfillment center workers and plenty of cameras in these fulfillment centers, which are basically like factory production. That are measuring people’s productivity and even not letting people take bathroom breaks at certain times. So … if we, being people who work for Amazon, are cogs in their machine of just creating greater and greater power, whether through the speculated value of data or on actual profits, we can understand how Amazon treats its workers accordingly.

“And there’s some evidence also to consider that all of this data is being used to fuel the construction of robotic and automated systems that at some point will eventually replace these human beings and these workers themselves. So that poses great economic threats to a digital economy that, quite honestly, is not really supporting the working and middle classes, in my opinion.”

On the need for regulation of Amazon

Jon Callas: “Regulation is needed and regulation is useful. And as well as other mechanisms, such as merely having principles in place that companies will adhere to. In terms of what’s happening now, there is, as you mentioned, there is a move towards robotic and automated systems.

“The FAA is even as we speak, going through having regulations be put in place for drones that are going beyond line of sight, many of these drones have a lot of useful purposes because they do inspections of pipelines, power lines, et cetera that right now, were being done by persons, by helicopters. But it’s also things like Amazon has been saying, delivery by drones.

“And we’d like to have limits on how long the data is kept, that after a successful flight has completed, that any video they might have picked up will be deleted. This is something that can be handed directly to the delivery vans, et cetera. That when there has been no problem, delete the data. To have it so that data that a device like an Alexa has, ages out. That it isn’t kept, it isn’t monetized permanently and becomes an ever increasing database. But it is something that is used for its purpose, and then it is removed.”

More from WBUR

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.