Amazon might have a Cambridge Analytica-size problem

Amazon could be the next big tech firm to find itself in the eye of a data privacy storm.

  • This year the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, implicating Facebook and creating mass data privacy concern.
  • Concerns have been raised of Amazon user information being leaked to third parties on a regular basis.
  • With the amount of sensitive information and huge number of users on the Amazon platform, this is no small concern.

2018 hasn't been a good year for Facebook. In March, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, implicating the company in data harvesting activities for political purposes. The story is far from over, with recent reports stating that the UK Parliament has seized Facebook internal company papers linked to an ongoing investigation into the matter.

Shortly after the scandal broke, Apple CEO Tim Cook twisted the knife, revealing in an interview with MSNBC that he believed Facebook should have shown some self-restraint. He addressed his own company's customers, stating their value to Apple and promising, "We're not going to traffic in your personal life."

Of course, the sentiment is admirable — even for hardened cynics who see the marketing angle of such a statement. However, it doesn't change the fact that all the big tech firms currently process our data inside a black box. Before the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, Google was under the microscope due to Edward Snowden's disclosures of NSA spying activities.

Now, Amazon could be the next big tech firm to find itself in the eye of a data privacy storm. The issue? America's biggest marketplace is heavily dependent on Chinese sellers, who are unwittingly allowing some of China's biggest payment processors access to Amazon customers' personal data.

How Chinese payment processors access Amazon user data

Amazon is a global marketplace, meaning that it's very easy for virtually anyone to become a seller on the platform. When you make an order on Amazon, your personal data including name, address, and basic credit card information and purchase details are passed through to the seller. The seller also needs to have a receiving account, so they can receive the proceeds from your purchase. Amazon requires that the receiving account is linked to the country where the seller is operating.

For this reason, many Chinese sellers use big payment processing companies based in China such as Pingpong, and Lianlian. The payment provider needs access to the seller's Amazon account to set up their receiving account, and here is where the data privacy issue occurs.

A seller has a couple of options for how a third party can plug into their Amazon account. The highest level of access is using the seller's secret key. Someone with a seller's secret key can access all the same data as the seller themselves, including customer data of people who have ordered from the seller.

Even the fact that sellers receive customer data may come as a surprise to many. After all, we assume that Amazon is the company receiving and processing our data, not some small seller on the other side of the world. However, since Amazon accepts pretty much any seller, many will need customer data to fulfill and process payment for the order.

Amazon does provide the option of using an API for payment providers to access a seller's account. However, they provide only the very thinnest of instructions to their sellers on how to do this and explain the dangers of giving out private keys in the vaguest of terms. From discussions taking place on Weixin, China's version of WhatsApp, it's apparent that Chinese sellers are being asked by payment providers to release their secret keys.

Even discussions on Amazon's own community pages imply some sellers have disclosed their secret keys. This means that payment providers, which are huge Chinese companies, now likely have access to the customer data of a currently unquantified number of American Amazon users.

The extent of the damage

While the amount of data breached is unquantified, the sheer scale of Amazon and its ties to China provide some insights into the potential extent of the damage. There are an estimated 90 million Amazon Prime subscribers in the US, with 46% of subscribers buying something at least once per week.

34% of Amazon's top sellers are based in China, with 250,000 new Chinese sellers having joined Amazon in 2017 alone. Pingpong is just one example of a Chinese payment services provider and it has processed more than $1 billion worth of US payments.

Regulators have taken greater steps to intervene in matters user data privacy, but regulatory control only has a defined geographical scope. A court can hold Amazon accountable for its actions in securing customer data in its own jurisdiction, however it cannot rule against the use of data that has already leaked to foreign companies. Nevertheless, the US has been slow to introduce user privacy laws compared to the EU, which has attempted to control the issue with its far-reaching General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR.)

Because Amazon is a global company, the issue is not necessarily limited to US customer data. However, this is taking place against the backdrop of an extremely tense period in US-China trade relations. During 2018, both countries have imposed an increasing series of tariffs on imports from the other, leading to a situation which many economists believe could be extremely damaging to the global economy. Sectors including technology, healthcare, and agriculture are being impacted by the tariffs.

It remains to be seen whether or not Amazon user data may become a pawn in the trade war between President Trump and China's leader Xi Jinping. Amazon is a US company, after all, and any misuse of US Amazon user data by Chinese companies would be likely to be seen as an attack on the US. With the famously unpredictable President Trump in charge of Chinese trade negotiations, it could go either way.

Regulators must hold big tech accountable

The privacy issues with Amazon customer data highlighted here further underline the level of trust we are placing in big tech companies. We rely on their systems, processes and overall integrity to keep our data safe. Increasingly, these firms are demonstrating that they do nothing to earn our trust.

However, once the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, regulators including the US Senate and the UK Parliament were quick to intervene. This has cast a shadow over Facebook's practices, and the company is finally being held to account for its actions. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before Amazon comes under the same level of scrutiny.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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