Jun 24, 2019

I'm being watched at Amazon Go — and I don't care

AmazonBasics private label products on the shelves at Go in Seattle. Photos: Erica Pandey/Axios

Alarm bells are going off in the U.S. and Europe over Big Tech's invasion of our privacy. The companies are betting hard on one thing: That consumers — especially younger ones — won't care too much what you know about them as long as you give them really cool stuff.

I would know — I'm one of them.

The big picture: Per a February survey by IBM's Institute for Business Value, 71% of consumers say it's worth sacrificing privacy for the benefits of technology.

  • A whopping 81% say they're concerned about how their data is being used, but only 45% have actually updated privacy settings on an app or account in the last year and a measly 16% have stopped using a tech company's service because of data misuse.
  • According to an Axios poll, 46% of consumers ages 18–24 say they always accept companies' privacy policies without reading a single word. Only 15% of those over 65 say they do the same.

Why it matters: This is why surveillance capitalism has boomed. I, like scores of others, have decided that I'm OK with giving up personal data in order to keep getting convenient, cheap (or free) services. Despite the known episodes of firms misusing data, the ease and quality of life under the reign of Big Tech generally seems worth it.

  • On top of that, despite the public techlash, many of the companies at the pinnacle of data capitalism — Amazon, Microsoft and Google — are among the most trusted institutions in the country. Part of the gamble is that many consumers believe companies won't do anything untoward with their personal information.

Shoshana Zuboff's new book on this new economy — “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” — misses this, author Nicholas Carr wrote in the LA Review of Books:

"Many people, it seems clear, experience surveillance capitalism less as a prison, where their agency is restricted in a noxious way, than as an all-inclusive resort, where their agency is restricted in a pleasing way. Zuboff makes a convincing case that this is a short-sighted and dangerous view — that the bargain we've struck with the internet giants is a Faustian one — but her case would have been stronger still had she more fully addressed the benefits side of the ledger."

For example, two weeks ago, while in Seattle, I visited my first Amazon Go store. The small, seemingly harmless shop's capabilities for snooping are immense.

  • It knows I picked up a soda, thought about buying it, but decided not to. And Amazon can later feed me ads for soda, or come out with its own, lower-calorie Amazon soda for me and others like me.
  • It knows exactly how I moved about the store, what items I bought together and when I bought them. Amazon can use my walking patterns, along with those of hundreds of thousands of others, to better design its store and aisles and sell more stuff.
  • This kind of data is not unlike what every other retailer collects. But Amazon can combine Go insights with all of its pre-existing data about my online shopping, watching and listening habits through Amazon Prime and Alexa to create an even fuller picture of me.

But when it comes to Go — or Instagram following what I'm "liking" to point me to clothes I'll buy or Uber tracking where I'm going and what I'm ordering — I just don't care what the company knows. As one millennial friend put it, "Take my data; give me free shit.“

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