Tag: Amazon

Have I Mentioned that Amazon is Evil Before?

When you “buy” a Prime Membership, you are selling yourself to them:

Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant may be useful, but the privacy concerns aren’t going away anytime soon.

Now, in a fresh turn of events, the retail giant has confirmed that it keeps transcripts and voice recordings indefinitely, and only removes them if they’re manually deleted by users.


Privacy in the Internet of Things space has already been a hot topic. Earlier this April, Bloomberg published a piece about how thousands of Amazon employees listen to voice recordings captured in Echo speakers, transcribing and annotating them to improve the Alexa digital assistant that powers the smart speakers.

Then in May, the retail behemoth came under further scrutiny for its data collection practices after CNET reported that Alexa assistant not only keeps your voice recordings, but also keeps a record of your voice transcriptions for improving its AI algorithms, with no option to delete them.


Amazon’s response points out that even developers of Alexa skills can keep a record of every transaction or routinely scheduled activity a user makes with an Echo device. “When a customer interacts with an Alexa skill, that skill developer may also retain records of the interaction,” the company wrote in its response.


But the lack of clarity surrounding its data collection and retention policies has revived debates over the sometimes conflicting goals of convenience and privacy. And Coons isn’t exactly satisfied with Amazon‘s reply.

“Amazon‘s response leaves open the possibility that transcripts of user voice interactions with Alexa are not deleted from all of Amazon‘s servers, even after a user has deleted a recording of his or her voice,” he said in a statement. “What’s more, the extent to which this data is shared with third parties, and how those third parties use and control that information, is still unclear.”

I believe the technical term for this sort of business and technical practice is, “Dystopian.”

The Lie of Business Incentives

Even though Amazon pulled out of iths “HQ2” proposal, including Jeff Bezos’ notorious helipad, it looks like Amazon is expanding in New York City anyway.

The lesson to be learned here is that the best way to win when companies pit cities against each other for subsidies is not to play that game:

Amazon is reportedly back in the market for office space in New York City, which, if true, is a sweet bit of vindication for critics of the company’s whole HQ2 fracas.

In February, Amazon dropped its plans to build a massive office complex in Queens amid political blowback over a package of state and city subsidies the project would have received. Now, according to the New York Post, the company is shopping for real estate on the West Side of Manhattan. “The tech giant has been in talks with owners of two shiny new skyscrapers located just one block west of Penn Station — the newly built One Manhattan West and its soon-to-be sister project, Two Manhattan West,” the paper reports, citing “sources.” The company, which already has 5,000 employees in the city, is apparently looking for 100,000 square feet or “much more.”

That footprint is significantly smaller than the 4 million to 8 million square feet of space Amazon planned to build out for its HQ2 project. But the fact that the company is still planning to grow its New York presence without a large, specially crafted subsidy package seems to prove the basic point many of the deal’s critics made, which is that major cities with large pools of business and engineering talent do not need to stoop to corporate welfare in order to attract major tech companies, which tend to go where they can find enough employees.

Actually, it’s not even that, Amazon’s locations were, as tends to be the case, where their CEO already had a house.

Seriously, city fathers, do not play that game.

Live in Obediant, Fear, Citizen

Amazon is routinely listening to your Alexa without your knowledge:

Tens of millions of people use smart speakers and their voice software to play games, find music or trawl for trivia. Millions more are reluctant to invite the devices and their powerful microphones into their homes out of concern that someone might be listening.

Sometimes, someone is.

Amazon.com Inc. employs thousands of people around the world to help improve the Alexa digital assistant powering its line of Echo speakers. The team listens to voice recordings captured in Echo owners’ homes and offices. The recordings are transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the software as part of an effort to eliminate gaps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands.

The Alexa voice review process, described by seven people who have worked on the program, highlights the often-overlooked human role in training software algorithms. In marketing materials Amazon says Alexa “lives in the cloud and is always getting smarter.” But like many software tools built to learn from experience, humans are doing some of the teaching.

The team comprises a mix of contractors and full-time Amazon employees who work in outposts from Boston to Costa Rica, India and Romania, according to the people, who signed nondisclosure agreements barring them from speaking publicly about the program. They work nine hours a day, with each reviewer parsing as many as 1,000 audio clips per shift, according to two workers based at Amazon’s Bucharest office, which takes up the top three floors of the Globalworth building in the Romanian capital’s up-and-coming Pipera district. The modern facility stands out amid the crumbling infrastructure and bears no exterior sign advertising Amazon’s presence.

Well, that’s reassuring, isn’t it, Romanian hackers and Indian robocallers listening in on your home.

The work is mostly mundane. One worker in Boston said he mined accumulated voice data for specific utterances such as “Taylor Swift” and annotated them to indicate the searcher meant the musical artist. Occasionally the listeners pick up things Echo owners likely would rather stay private: a woman singing badly off key in the shower, say, or a child screaming for help. The teams use internal chat rooms to share files when they need help parsing a muddled word—or come across an amusing recording.

And then, you become a running gag at the next Christmas party.

If they want people in a petri dish so that they can tweak their algorithms, all they need to do is get their informed consent, pay them, and tell them when it is on or off, but that is inconvenient and expensive, so once again Eric Arthur Blair is spinning in his grave.

Tweet of the Day

You know I try not to keep up with the latest happenings of ‘the resistance’ but am I to understand now they are protecting the powerless mom & pop business called *checks notes* Amazon from Trump? 💀

— DarkSkintDostoyevsky (@daniecal) April 4, 2018

Yeah, pretty much.

Amazon got where it was from a huge number of subsidies, like not having to collect sales taxes, and has shown itself to be a toxic workplace. (And that’s not considering the tax subsidies that it gets for locating its warehouses, and the spectacle of them shaking down locan and state governments for a satellite headquarters)

If Amazon faces off against Donald Trump, I hope that there is a way that both of them can lose, but if not, I’d have a hard time selecting who I would want to be the victor.

BTW, also read Dave Dayen’s take on this.  He does a good job of explaining all of this.

Jeff Bezos Is Attempting to Upload His Consciousness to a Machine

Let’s look at the checklist of scary sh%$ that Alexa does:

  • Listens to everything you say.
  • Doesn’t really care except to sell you more sh%$.
  • Doesn’t really understand the real you.
  • Doesn’t care that they don’t understand the real you.
  • Doesn’t give a sh%$ about people generally.

And here is the final bit, unexpected bursts of weird incongruous laughter.

I can only conclude that this is a result of Bezos attempting to upload his consciousness to the cloud:

Over the past few days, users with Alexa-enabled devices have reported hearing strange, unprompted laughter. Amazon responded to the creepiness today in a statement to The Verge, saying, “We’re aware of this and working to fix it.”


As noted in media reports and a trending Twitter moment, Alexa seemed to start laughing without being prompted to wake. People on Twitter and Reddit reported that they thought it was an actual person laughing near them, which is certainly scary if you’re home alone. Many responded to the cackling sounds by unplugging their Alexa-enabled devices.

I’m beginning to think that this whole Internet thing was a mistake.

The Amazonization of Whole Foods

It looks like Whole Foods was attempting to out-Amazon Amazon while it was negotiating its sale to the internet retailer because it established a just in time inventory system that is leaving shelves empty of staple foods:

Whole Foods is facing a crush of food shortages in stores that’s leading to empty shelves, furious customers, and frustrated employees.

Many customers are blaming Amazon, which bought Whole Foods in August for $13.7 billion. Analysts have speculated that the shortages could be due to a spike in shopper traffic in the wake of the acquisition.

But Whole Foods employees say the problems began before the acquisition. They blame the shortages on a buying system called order-to-shelf that Whole Foods implemented across its stores early last year.


Order-to-shelf, or OTS, is a tightly controlled system designed to streamline and track product purchases, displays, storage, and sales. Under OTS, employees largely bypass stock rooms and carry products directly from delivery trucks to store shelves. It is meant to help Whole Foods cut costs, better manage inventory, reduce waste, and clear out storage.

But its strict procedures are leading to storewide stocking issues, according to several employees. Angry responses from customers are crushing morale, they say. (Many of the photographs in this story were provided to Business Insider by customers.)

“At my store, we are constantly running out of products in every department, including mine,” an assistant department manager of an Illinois Whole Foods told Business Insider. “Regional and upper store management know about this. We all know we are losing sales and pissing off customers. It’s not that we don’t care — we do. But our hands are tied.”

Whole Foods did not respond to several requests for comment on this story. The company’s executives have described the changes as cost-saving, and employees acknowledge that they have helped reduce food spoilage in stock rooms.

Let’s be clear: this predates the Amazon acquisition, but it seems to correspond with when negotiations likely began.

Either they were trying to make themselves more attractive to Amazon, or they were trying to be more like Amazon, but groceries ain’t books or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

H/t Atrios.

Throw Your Amazon Echo out the Window Now

Such a good idea to give access to every conversation in your room to Russian hackers:

The data is also kept in the event it’s request by law enforcement, however Amazon fought police over what it saw as an overly broad request for audio logs on a murder suspect last year. (The company relented in April of this year and handed over the logs when the suspect voluntarily said he was willing to provide them.)

Amazon does not hand this data over to developers, The Information says, because such a move would undermine Amazon’s commitment to user privacy. However, because Google, which makes the most popular Echo competitor currently on the market, does give developers access to this data, Amazon’s Echo and Alexa divisions feel they are at a disadvantage, the report states. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its data-sharing policies for the Home speaker.

For instance, some developers fear that without audio logs of requests, like those related to a food delivery order, they won’t know exactly what went wrong if the order is ultimately incorrect and the customer unhappy. According to The Information, Amazon does give some data over to a select few “whitelisted” developers, though how that system works is unclear. Amazon is considering granting third-party app developers access to transcripts of audio recordings saved by Alexa-powered devices, according to a report from The Information today. The change would be aimed at enticing developers to continue investing in Alexa as a voice assistant platform, by giving those app makers more data that could help improve their software over time. Amazon’s goal, according to The Information, is to stay competitive with more recent entrants in the smart speaker market, like Apple and Google.

Amazon declined to comment on its future plans for Alexa data-sharing policies. However, a company spokesperson told The Verge, “When you use a skill, we provide the developer the information they need to process your request. We do not share customer identifiable information to third-party skills without the customer’s consent. We do not share audio recordings with developers.”

As it stands today, Amazon records audio through Alexa devices like the Echo home speaker and the new Echo Look camera and Echo Show monitor, however only after a “wake word” like “Hey Alexa” is used to prime the software. These devices send these audio clips to an Amazon-owned server where they’re analyzed to produce a near-instantaneous response from Alexa, but where they’re also stored so Amazon can improve its digital assistant through artificial intelligence training techniques.


Amazon does not hand this data over to developers, The Information says, because such a move would undermine Amazon’s commitment to user privacy. However, because Google, which makes the most popular Echo competitor currently on the market, does give developers access to this data, Amazon’s Echo and Alexa divisions feel they are at a disadvantage, the report states. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its data-sharing policies for the Home speaker.

For instance, some developers fear that without audio logs of requests, like those related to a food delivery order, they won’t know exactly what went wrong if the order is ultimately incorrect and the customer unhappy. According to The Information, Amazon does give some data over to a select few “whitelisted” developers, though how that system works is unclear.

Yeah, throw out Google Home as well.

Orwell in a f%$#ing box.

Another Corporate Parasite On the Taxpayer Dole

It turns out that the US Post Office is subsidizing Amazon’s deliveries. Specifically, the USPS has been under-allocating fixed cost to its package delivery for years, and Amazon is the primary beneficiary:

In my neighborhood, I frequently walk past “shop local” signs in the windows of struggling stores. Yet I don’t feel guilty ordering most of my family’s household goods on Amazon. In a world of fair competition, there will be winners and losers.

But when a mail truck pulls up filled to the top with Amazon boxes for my neighbors and me, I do feel some guilt. Like many close observers of the shipping business, I know a secret about the federal government’s relationship with Amazon: The U.S. Postal Service delivers the company’s boxes well below its own costs. Like an accelerant added to a fire, this subsidy is speeding up the collapse of traditional retailers in the U.S. and providing an unfair advantage for Amazon.


In 2001 the quantity of first-class mail in the U.S. began to decline thanks to the internet. Today it is down 40% from its peak levels, according to Postal Service data. But though there are fewer letters to put into each mailbox, the Postal Service still visits 150 million residences and businesses daily. With less traditional mail to deliver, the service has filled its spare capacity by delivering more boxes.

Other companies, such as UPS and FedEx , compete with the Postal Service to deliver packages. Lawmakers, to their credit, wanted a level playing field between the post office and its private competitors. The 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act made it illegal for the Postal Service to price parcel delivery below its cost.


In 2007 the Postal Service and its regulator determined that, at a minimum, 5.5% of the agency’s fixed costs must be allocated to packages and similar products. A decade later, around 25% of its revenue comes from packages, but their share of fixed costs has not kept pace. First-class mail effectively subsidizes the national network, and the packages get a free ride. An April analysis from Citigroup estimates that if costs were fairly allocated, on average parcels would cost $1.46 more to deliver. It is as if every Amazon box comes with a dollar or two stapled to the packing slip—a gift card from Uncle Sam.

Amazon is big enough to take full advantage of “postal injection,” and that has tipped the scales in the internet giant’s favor. Select high-volume shippers are able to drop off presorted packages at the local Postal Service depot for “last mile” delivery at cut-rate prices. With high volumes and warehouses near the local depots, Amazon enjoys low rates unavailable to its competitors. My analysis of available data suggests that around two-thirds of Amazon’s domestic deliveries are made by the Postal Service. It’s as if Amazon gets a subsidized space on every mail truck.

The US Post Office has been subsidizing package delivery for decades, and it has continued to do so even though this was forbidden by Congress in 2006.

This is not surprising.  It is a feature of the current economy that subsidies (copyright, patent, implicit bailouts, the Pentagon, stadium deals, etc.) are at the core of the businesses of the big players in almost any US industry.

The fact that they are taking from the rest of us for their profits is a major driver of inequality.