At a time of heightened concern about user privacy, one of the world’s biggest technology companies is seeking access to one of users’ most private places: the trunks of their cars.
Amazon Inc. on Tuesday launched what it calls In-Car Delivery, which allows Amazon delivery drivers to open the trunks of certain late-model cars and drop off packages inside.
It’s the e-commerce giant’s latest attempt to extend its reach into users’ lives, having last year debuted a web-connected door lock and camera that lets delivery drivers deposit packages within customers’ homes.
Peter Larsen, Amazon’s vice president of delivery technology, said customers “love features like keyless guest access” and that “in-car delivery gives customers that same peace of mind and allows them to take the Amazon experience with them.”
Though in line with Amazon’s playbook, encroaching further into users’ private lives is a bold move at a time when consumers are particularly focused on security and privacy issues in the wake of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. But, experts say, Amazon has reason to act now.
“First-mover advantage is huge,” said Sarah Squire, senior technical architect at security firm Ping Identity. “When Apple came out with the iPhone, it allowed them to dominate not only phones but tablets because people were used to the interface.”
Being the first to normalize a new form of delivery — such as in-home or in-car — could give Amazon a leg up not just over competitors but also against regulators.
“Once this sort of behavior becomes normalized, it becomes harder to push back on both as a consumer and as a matter of policy,” said Woodrow Hartzog, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University.
If regulators tried now to push back on how advertising is delivered on the internet, for example, it could prove hard to make substantial changes because industry practices and consumer expectations are already ingrained. If, for instance, people get used to allowing Amazon into their homes and cars, their shopping preferences could trump regulation.
Compared with Facebook, which has found itself under fire after the data firm Cambridge Analytica violated company policy in its use of personal information belonging to 87 million Facebook users, Amazon has certain advantages. Though Facebook and Amazon traffic in user data, Facebook’s business model, which leverages user information to sell advertising, has stoked more concern about privacy than Amazon’s retail business.
And unlike many leading technology companies, Amazon hasn’t suffered any high-profile data breaches or faced accusations of mishandling of customer information. The e-commerce giant has a reputation in the technology industry for strong technical security and data governance, Squire said, which has probably emboldened the company to ask consumers for more access and data.
“This is them saying, we’re going to take some risks because we think we can do this well and we think we’re right,” Squire said.
Still, as the cybersecurity adage goes, it’s not a matter of if a company’s security will be breached, but when. And as Amazon vacuums up more information about its customers, a data breach could be particularly devastating.
The e-commerce giant knows where its shoppers live and work, what they buy, how often they buy it, credit card information, what music they listen to, what questions they ask the company’s personal assistant, Alexa, what books they’re reading and, on a Kindle, what page they’re on.
With in-car delivery — an opt-in features that only works with 2015 or newer Volvo, Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles — Amazon will know the general vicinity of where a customer’s vehicle is parked. When an Amazon delivery driver is en route, the vehicle will broadcast its precise GPS location to the driver. Amazon will have the car’s license plate number and know what it looks like. To open the trunk, the delivery driver, upon arrival, will notify the Amazon app. The app will then speak to Amazon’s cloud, which will speak to Volvo or Chevrolet’s cloud, which then will unlock the trunk.
There are obvious security concerns with granting a stranger access to your trunk. Asif Rafiq, chief digital officer of Volvo, said that if a customer experienced theft as a result of in-car delivery, Amazon customer service would handle it.
“We fully anticipate some edge cases,” Rafiq said. “If there are special use cases that we haven’t thought through entirely, we can reassess and address them.”
But even if nothing is stolen from a person’s car, allowing a company to know the whereabouts of a vehicle can have significant privacy implications.
“We leave things in our car that reveal a lot about us, and we park them in places that reveal things about us,” Hartzog said. “Whether you park at an oncologist’s office or at an apartment that’s not yours…. What if this information then gets out?”
“Consumers should be concerned,” said John M. Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Santa Monica.
“There is this notion that all these tech companies are about giving you what you want,” Simpson said. “But it’s much more about gathering information about you that is then monetized. I don’t know if people understand that. Maybe they will and then begin to push back.”
Voracious data gathering is one reason Amazon wants access to more parts of our lives, Hartzog said. But it’s also about creating a dependency. Much like how many people find it hard to leave Facebook because all their friends and family members are on it, Amazon — which wants people to keep shopping on its platform — wants to make sure people never stop shopping on its platform.
“They want to be the everything store,” Hartzog said. “They’ll probably throw out a lot of services that may not be profitable but may give them advantages.”