It’s December, so I’m sure I’m not the only person doing some holiday shopping on the Amazon mobile app while waiting in line at Whole Foods. It is irresistibly convenient. You think of a gift idea, and boom, it’s checked off your list.
Just remember: Amazon is forever.
If you’ve used Amazon for any length of time (I’ve been clicking-to-buy since March 2000!), the company holds a vast data set about you. In my case, Chief Executive Jeff Bezos knows not only what I’ve bought, but also what I’ve searched for, and maybe even what I’ve reviewed (in my case, just a few items). If you have an Amazon Echo (I don’t), the company also stores every single thing you’ve ever asked it.
Download your purchase history from Amazon and you might be surprised at the dots that are easily connected.
Amazon remembers what you sent your siblings two birthdays ago, and that novelty stocking stuffer from 2011. Maybe you’re fine with a single company knowing that you bought a particular personal hygiene item, reams of specific printer paper, and also that mouth-watering gochujang seven months ago. But if you aren’t, too bad.
Short of closing your entire Amazon account, there is no way to erase this purchase history. Amazon lets you “archive” purchases so that they can’t easily be seen, but not to fully delete them.
This is unlike every major online service that I’m aware of. Twitter and Facebook — the most frequent targets of data-hoarding and privacy concerns — both allow you to delete individual posts. Even Google lets you toss your search and location history. Why doesn’t Amazon? I don’t know; the company won’t say. (And yes, I’ve tried asking.)
Even given Amazon’s targeted product marketing, is it really that useful to know that I bought the “Almost Famous” DVD in January 2003? It’s the 21st century equivalent to a 20th century question: Why assemble such a mountain of data? Because it is there. Or, put another way, data storage is crazy cheap.
Other retailers, such as Apple and Home Depot, also keep online purchasing history. That’s not inherently a bad idea from a customer service perspective, especially to aid repairs, returns or warranty claims. But those companies don’t offer Amazon’s vast range of products. Where else but Amazon can you get books about starting a cannabis business, 9-millimeter bullets, and also cases of toilet paper?
Download your purchase history from Amazon and you might be surprised at the dots that are easily connected. Earlier this year, when my colleagues at Ars Technica reviewed their complete list of Amazon transactions for the first time, many came to the realize how much personal information it unlocked.
“I’m struck by how much Amazon potentially knows about me,” Megan Geuss wrote. “My purchases are pretty mundane, but you could deduce a lot about me from this order history. With that realization, I’ll probably try to buy less from the store in the future.”
What Amazon has become is unprecedented. Traditional retailers have never before had its power or reach. Think of it this way: If I go to Newegg, the Southern California online electronics retailer, to order a new hard drive, the company doesn’t also know what size underwear I buy.
It’s also worth taking stock of the fact that the Amazon of 2018 is not the same as the Amazon of 2008. Amazon’s reach isn’t merely online — it’s now physical in entirely new pervasive and potentially invasive ways.
A decade ago, when you were buying “Eat, Pray, Love” and a pizza slicer shaped like the starship Enterprise, Amazon did not own Whole Foods. It did not sell an always-listening smart speaker that captures activity inside the four walls of your home. It did not offer a way for delivery workers to digitally open the smart lock to your front door through its Amazon Key setup. It did not, as it does now, take routine pictures of your porch where all deliveries are made. (You can opt out of that if you want.) It did not sell facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies. Earlier this year, Amazon announced it would be moving into healthcare, too.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Amazon was the first company to introduce “Minority Report”-style in-person, bespoke advertisements.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an anti-Amazon Luddite. I renew our Amazon Prime subscription dutifully every year. After all, it makes getting diapers so damned easy. Oversized Amazon boxes fill our recycling bin.
At the same time, I genuinely want to be like my colleague Megan: mindful of the data that I’m sending to some anonymous server farm, where apparently it will be kept in perpetuity. I try to shop locally as much as possible, but I fall short of my own ideals sometimes. Because where else can I get one-day shipping on Dec. 22?
Cyrus Farivar is the author of “Habeas Data: Privacy vs. the Rise of Surveillance Tech.” He is a senior tech policy reporter at Ars Technica.