With last week’s introduction of Amazon’s Fire phone, many are wondering whether the online retail giant’s long-anticipated foray into the mobile market will be able to compete with entrenched competitors such as Apple and Samsung. But the new device raises a more profound question: What happens when the phone in your pocket — a machine holding intimate details about your life and relationships — becomes a tool of consumption in service to a single corporation?
We tend to consider computers tools that act as extensions of our will. Just as we wouldn’t expect a new car to have an agenda beyond allowing us to travel from point A to point B, we traditionally assume that the electronic devices in our homes, in our pockets and, more and more, on our bodies simply follow orders — that ultimately we are the ones behind the steering wheel.
With the rise of the smartphone, this idea of computers as general-purpose machines fully under our control has quickly fallen by the wayside. Many mobile devices are becoming more akin to household appliances, deliberately crafted to perform a handful of functions while arbitrarily discouraging or disallowing others. Today’s mobile operating systems, such as Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, orbit around centralized app stores, walled gardens that push participation in the company’s larger software ecosystem. When you buy a phone or tablet from Apple or Samsung, you are not just buying a product; you are buying into a captive platform that controls your private data and incentivizes certain patterns of user behavior that benefit the manufacturer’s bottom line.
Amazon’s Fire phone is perhaps the most ambitious realization of this captive consumer dynamic. The company’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, has been fairly candid about the primary purpose of Amazon’s hardware: to get the device’s owner to buy more stuff. Whereas computers were once impartial tools that made it easier to do things, Bezos wants the smartphone, that most personal of devices, to become an interface for the Amazon shopping service — to wit, a dedicated point-of-sale system.
So where does Amazon end and your device begin? It’s a distinction that is increasingly and worryingly hard to draw.
Panopticon in your pocket
It’s not the first time Amazon has pushed the boundaries of gadget ownership. In 2012 it released a new line of Kindle tablets running a special operating system based on Google’s Android. As part of its normal functioning, the device tracks and records user activity (including how long users spend reading each page of an e-book) and shows advertisements for Amazon products on the basis of the data it harvests. After complaints, the company offered the ability to turn off the ads for $15. The result, I noted at the time, was like buying a high-tech shopping cart flanked by pesky salespeople you had to pay to leave you alone.
Amazon wants to turn every moment of your life into an opportunity to buy stuff.
The new Fire phone runs the same operating system as the Kindles do, and it goes a step further by boosting Amazon’s shopping service in more novel (and unsettling) ways. It’s ironic that a year after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden sparked international anxieties about government spying, Bezos is selling a phone that features not one or two but six cameras. Four of those cameras are forward facing and are capable of advanced head tracking and face detection, something Bezos said took the company four years to develop. They support an innocuous-sounding app called Firefly, which can use the phone’s cameras and microphone to watch, scan and listen to everything around the user. If you’re listening to music or watching a movie, the app can identify and log your selections. Firefly can even use the phone’s camera mode to identify and save all the objects you come across in the physical environment, such as the books in your house, the landmarks you visit while sightseeing and the paintings you see at the museum. (Bezos says the app can recognize up to 100 million items.)
It may seem novel and quirky, but the message is clear: Amazon wants to turn every moment of your life into an opportunity to buy stuff. And crucially, it wants you to do so on a $649 device that channels that urge directly to its storefront, all the while gathering more precious data points about your communications, relationships and movements.
Amazon is not uniquely at fault for this trend, even if its implementations are the most explicit and unabashed. Facebook, for example, has a long history of slowly changing its default privacy settings so that users unwittingly share more data with more people — an obvious benefit to the company, whose business model depends on monetizing user data with targeted advertising. Commenting on an infamous privacy bait and switch in 2009 that left millions of Facebook profiles exposed to the entire Internet, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “We decided that these would be the social norms now, and we just went for it.”
This is in some ways to be expected from free services such as Facebook and Google, which we grudgingly use knowing their true cost is in the data they collect from us. But it’s quite another thing for Amazon to charge money for devices that surveil and monetize their users and, moreover, serve as portals to the company’s online shopping mall.
Such double-charging of customers is becoming common practice in the technology space. In 2012, Verizon Wireless began selling data about its customers as part of a service called Precision Market Insights, including their smartphone Web browsing habits, geolocation information and app usage. Earlier this year it expanded the program to collect Web-browsing data from users when they log onto Verizon’s website to pay their bills.
This flies in the face of the common mantra about Big Data’s business model that if you’re not paying for it, you are the product being sold. Companies such as Amazon and Verizon want to have their cake and eat it too, making us both the customer and the product. And too often, they’re finding they can get away with it.
The market will determine whether Amazon’s Fire phone succeeds in a crowded field. What should be a far greater concern are the implications of a corporation’s having this much influence over consumers’ dollars and data. As computing devices fall more in step with the routines of our lives, we should scrutinize the motives and biases coded into the software that runs on them. Otherwise, our tools risk becoming not really ours at all.