Privacy advocates frown on Amazon snooping plan

Does a newly patented system that examines customers' gift-giving habits go too far?

Post a review of a book or other product on Amazon.com, and the information may find its way into the company's file on you.

That's one key feature, anyway, of a system Amazon has invented to gather clues about customers' gift-giving habits in order to suggest future gifts and reminders. The company was granted a patent last week for the system, which also profiles gift recipients and guesses their age, birthday and gender.

Amazon says it hasn't put the "systems and methods" covered by the patent to use, so it isn't monitoring customer review pages yet. But that fact gives little comfort to consumer advocates, who have hounded Amazon for years over its customer-profiling practices.

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What's new:
Amazon has been granted a patent for a system that gathers clues from reviews about customers' gift-giving habits in order to suggest future gifts and reminders.

Bottom line:
Consumer advocates worry that the company's profiling practices may have gone too far and could exploit the giving of gifts and the sense of community that customer reviews were designed to engender.

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This latest invention is yet further cause for concern, because it could involve profiling children and exploit the giving of gifts and the sense of community that customer reviews were designed to engender, advocate groups said.

"Amazon has continued to set the low bar for privacy on the Internet," said Chris Hoofnagle, West Coast director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC. "It's almost no longer a surprise when the company announces some new way to profile people."

Here's how the proposed system works, according to Amazon's patent claim: Amazon would gather information about gift recipients, including their names, addresses and items customers send them. The system would then try to guess their gender, age and the gift-giving occasion based on the type of present, messages written in gift cards, dates gifts are ordered, items on wish lists, and commentary in related consumer reviews.

The system appears particularly geared toward people buying gifts for children, with its ability to recommend "age appropriate" gifts. For instance, the message, "Suggested Toys and Books That Would Bring A Smile To Joseph Doe, age 2!" may greet a registered customer who visits Amazon in the future, according to the patent claim.

The prospect of child profiling is particularly troubling in light of recent high-profile cases of criminal data theft at ChoicePoint, Bank of America and Reed Elsevier Group's LexisNexis service. The practice may even run afoul of online child protection laws, advocate groups said.

"There's no guarantee that there won't be some disastrous privacy invasion coming out of this," said Karen Coyle, a spokeswoman for Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. "That's a very big risk to take with children."

Coyle's organization, EPIC and a number of other like-minded groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission a couple of years ago alleging Amazon's online toy store and children's reviews violate the

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