All Your Searches Belong To Us
Amazon, Google, and the Rise of Surveillance Capitalism
By Mark Stephen Meadows
The following is text shown during the famous “Parisian Love” Google advertisement that aired during the 2010 Super Bowl half-time:
study abroad paris france
cafes near the louvre
translate tu est trés mignon
impress a french girl
chocolate shops near paris france
what are truffles
who is truffaut
long distance relationship advice
jobs in paris
churches in paris
how to assemble a crib
These twelve simple searches tell quite a story. In a scant 60 seconds we watch as a user (presumably a young man) types one query after another into a Google search box, and in the process reveals a budding relationship, courtship, and new family. The ad became a huge favorite and hailed by no less than Time Magazine as one of the best Super Bowl ads of all time.
Seen through another lens, “Parisian Love” is also one of the creepiest ads of all time. Compare it to the infamous Cambridge Analytica data collection/survey scandal on Facebook and you begin to get a sense of how people reveal too much information about themselves and how corporations are scraping their valuable personal data and using it for nefarious purposes.
Despite the warm feelings of Parisian love, and the millions of hits on YouTube, it’s important to remember that all the time our erstwhile swain was entering search terms, in the background Google is listening in. Turns out it’s not just big brother watching you. It’s global corporations. Now, how do you feel about those searches for chocolates, churches, and cribs?
The new reveal: speech and affective data
Today, with systems like Amazon Alexa we no longer type words into a window so that data systems can extrapolate speech. Today, we speak to computers and digital services. Speech provides far richer personal data with far more fidelity and context to machine learning (ML) systems, including emotion, tone, tenor, rhythm, inflection, and even pauses or “disfluencies” such as “uhm,” “ah,” and “er.” This allows systems like Alexa to gather a treasure trove of personal data — more than most people realize, in fact. The words and the ways we say them convey what we feel, intend, and believe. We call this “affective data” and it is the “mother lode” of emotional data that Amazon, and Google can use to uncover the drivers of purchasing decisions.
As one of the largest and fastest growing global retailers, you can imagine how valuable this data is to Amazon. It’s of equal value to suppliers, advertisers, manufacturers, and the legion of analysts that identify purchasing trends and the decisions we individually make.
Many have questioned Amazon about what is done with all of this data. Alexa is listening, recording, and tracking our conversations. That includes everything from evidence in a recent Arkansas murder case to a married couple’s conversation about wood floors that was then, inadvertently, forwarded to one of their co-workers.
Amazon said this last example was a technical glitch — which is a supremely unsatisfying response. But, Amazon has not been terribly forthcoming about their data policies. And, they haven’t had to yet, because there are no data privacy regulations or legal scaffolds in place in the USA to address these emerging personal privacy questions (like there is in Europe). However, we should note that multiple class-action lawsuits have been already filed against the company over the last decade for using browser cookies to collect data on user purchases, and then selling that information to third-party retailers.
Millions of Amazon Alexa smart speaker systems have been sold. They command 70% of the entire market for these devices in US homes. You can now get an Echo Dot for free with simple health subscriptions. And, there’s even the Amazon Echo Look, a device with a camera on it — that Amazon suggests you put in your bedroom, so Amazon’s AI can suggest an outfit to wear. In much the way that Facebook is giving away accounts for free — accounts that are, essentially, data input apps — Amazon is now giving us many new means of sending the company our personal data.
Amazon is collecting not just our words, and the ways we say them, but clues to how we feel, what we intend, and what we believe. Amazon is collecting our hearts and minds. They’ve got their finger on our pulse and their hands in our wallets. We can hardly blame Amazon. It is simply their business model: surveillance capitalism.