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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.


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 federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. COPPA makes it illegal for Web sites to collect information from children under the age of 13 without the consent of a parent.

The FTC rejected the claim a few months ago. But this new system, if put into practice, could bring a fresh round of COPPA-related complaints against the company, said Jason Catlett, founder of Junkbusters, a consumer watchdog.

Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith downplayed concerns, saying the company wouldn't do anything to violate COPPA and that all the hand-wringing is premature.

"There's no guarantee that there won't be some disastrous privacy invasion coming out of this."
--Karen Coyle, spokeswoman, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility

"When we submitted the patent application, we tried to be as forward-thinking as possible as to how we might apply the technology, but it's not something we're currently doing," she said. "It's all hypothetical."

Even if the system doesn't violate COPPA, it involves a level of snooping that's just plain creepy, some advocates said. Particularly worrisome is the fact that people wouldn't even have to shop at Amazon for the company to have a profile on them.

"They are building a speculative profile on you before you even know you're dealing with them, because someone sends you a gift," Catlett said. "They're guessing who knows what about you."

Catlett's group has unsuccessfully lobbied Amazon to let customers see their complete profiles and delete them if they ask. He would also like the online retailer to agree to never sell customer data under any circumstances.

He's particularly dismayed by the prospect of Amazon monitoring customer reviews for marketing purposes.

"This is a classic example of how a lack of privacy protection chills speech in public," Catlett said. "People will hesitate to publish reviews if they know the result is to enlarge their profile in some secret marketing database."