What does Amazon know about you?

Emma McGowan 3 Aug 2021

The question of whether or not giving up a hefty amount of data is “worth it” in exchange for convenience is a complicated one with Amazon

I’m old enough to remember a time when Amazon was just a cheaper way to get your (overpriced) college textbooks. “Prime” referred primarily to beef. Same-day shipping was a pipe dream. No one knew Jeff Bezos’ name.

It was a simpler time. 

These days, of course, it feels like Amazon has a finger in everything — including, most recently, space. The direct-to-consumer model that the company tested with books has expanded to include, well, basically anything you can think of. And as people have tried to limit their exposure to other people during the Covid-19 pandemic, Amazon has only gotten richer and more powerful. (And, to be fair, this was a pretty vital service for many, if not most, of us.)

As has their leader Jeff Bezos. And that entire empire — including the rocket Bezos just rode into space — was built on data. Your data. My data. Her mom’s data. The neighbor’s data. Everyone’s data. Amazon has become one of the most powerful companies in the world by sucking up and utilizing data any and every way they can.

To illustrate that, here’s a list of Amazon’s products and services, as of summer 2021:

  • Cloud computing
    • Amazon Web Services (AWS)
    • Amazon Photos
    • Amazon Drive
    • Amazon S3
  • Entertainment
    • Amazon Video 
    • Twitch
    • Prime Music
    • Amazon Music
    • Kindle Fire TV
    • Amazon Luna
    • Amazon Publishing
  • Ecommerce
  • Electronics
    • Kindle
    • Kindle Fire
    • Fire TV Stick
    • Echo
  • Delivery
    • Flex app
    • Amazon Logistics 
  • Groceries
    • Amazon Fresh
    • Whole Foods
    • Amazon Prime Pantry
  • Stores/In-person commerce
    • Amazon Go
    • Amazon Fresh
    • Amazon Books
    • Amazon Cash

As you can see, it’s a lot. And that’s not even including the many sub-companies and services that exist under each one. Needless to say, depending on which of these many services you use, it’s possible that Amazon knows a lot about you.

Since diving into every single one of these products and services would take longer than any of us has time for, I’m going to look specifically at what Amazon knows about me, based on the products that I use. Here’s what I found.

What does Amazon know about me?

First, let’s do a quick catalog of which Amazon products I’m signed up for. I use Amazon Marketplace, Amazon Prime, Kindle, and Whole Foods.

Marketplace (aka amazon.com) is probably the Amazon service that knows the most about me. I’m absolutely guilty of thinking of a random item I need — whether it’s toilet paper, potting soil, sewing stuff or make up — and clicking into the Amazon app. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that my Amazon order history is more revealing about me than even my Facebook history, if only because I probably do more on Amazon than I do on Facebook. 

For example, Amazon definitely knows that I sew and do embroidery, because even though I live right near one of the biggest fabric districts in the world, there are random tools and supplies that are hard to find, so I order them online. They know I have a cat, because I ordered Greenies and a grooming brush and litter from them, and they know I have a serious coffee habit, because I have four bags of Lavazza on Subscribe & Save. 

Amazon TV comes with Prime, which both my partner and I are subscribed to. That means the company knows what kinds of TV we like to watch, when we watch it, and what doesn’t interest us.

Kindle for sure knows me — I read a lot. They like to serve up cheesy domestic thrillers, which have been my brain candy reads lately. (Who doesn’t love a predictable, yet slightly scary, plot line in the midst of a global pandemic?) When my Kindle isn’t on Airplane Mode, they also know when I’m reading.

When I shop at Whole Foods, I always scan my little QR code on my phone so that I get all the Prime “discounts.” That means Amazon also knows things like what I eat and drink, as well as how often I buy groceries. In fact, some Prime Now members are now reporting that they’re in-store and online shopping has been linked.

Further reading:
Amazon's "Just Walk Out" tech: Should you just walk away?

So those are my specifics. Now let’s take a look at Amazon’s Privacy Policy in general. Amazon collects “information you give us” (like what you buy, watch, review, as well any account info like address, email, etc.); “automatic information” (aka info collected via cookies and other web identifiers); and “information from other sources” (including updated delivery info from partners, credit history, info about interactions with subsidiaries, etc.). They also exchange my information with third-party advertisers in order to serve me ads both on and off their platforms. 

Because I live in California and am protected under the CCPA, I have the right to access and delete any of my data — with that caveat that “some services may be limited or unavailable” if I did so. The same would be true if I lived in Europe or the UK and was protected under the GDPR.

What do I get in exchange for all of this data? And is it worth it?

The biggest thing I get from Amazon in exchange for my data is a pile of cardboard boxes waiting by my front door to be taken out to the recycling. And, of course, the plethora of random things that come in them. 

I’m being flip: What I get is convenience. I get back the time and energy I would have spent seeking out each item at the various stores in my very large city that may or may not have them. I also get “discounts,” although I’m still not totally convinced I’m saving that much money. 

The question of whether or not giving up all of this data is “worth it” is a complicated one with Amazon. Clearly, I like the convenience and prices the company offers, otherwise I would have quit a long time ago. But do I feel comfortable with how much this mega-conglomerate knows about me? Not in the slightest. And do Amazon’s labor practices and Jeff Bezos’ resemblance of an evil villain in a Marvel comic concern me? Completely. 

So. I’ll say this: I’d like to quit Amazon completely. I don’t like their labor practices, potential carbon impact, and I always prefer to support a range of small, local businesses over one big conglomerate. I’m going to make it a goal, but with a caveat: It’s not going to happen until this pandemic is truly over. It, like many of my aspirations, will have to stay on hold for the time being. 

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