Marketing

Amazon’s Fire Phone might be the biggest privacy invasion ever (and no one’s noticed)

Above: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduces the Fire Phone.

Image Credit: Mark Sullivan / VentureBeat
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Update 11:10am: We’ve corrected this story in several places with some additional information Amazon provided us about how Firefly works. The changes are noted in italics.

Amazon is a fascinating company, and the Amazon Fire Phone is a fascinating machine for connecting you with stuff to buy. It’s probably also the biggest single invasion of your privacy for commercial purposes ever.

And no one seems to have noticed.

There’s a lot of gee-whiz gadgetry in the new Fire Phone: a 3-D screen, head sensors, dynamic perspective shifts as you move, and real-time identification of over 100 million objects. That last part, the real-time identification, is the new Firefly function.

Firefly is a seriously impressive combination of hardware, software, and massive cloud chops that delivers an Apple-like simplicity to identify objects like books, movies, games, and more, just by pointing your Fire Phone’s camera at them and tapping the Firefly button.


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Lest you noticed a common denominator to those items and get the crazy idea that Firefly is only for stuff you can buy at Amazon, it also recognizes songs (oh, you can buy those on Amazon too) and TV shows (ditto) as well as phone numbers, printed information, and QR codes.

Wait.

How do you think it recognizes those things, including text on images, for which Amazon says it will offer language translation features later this year?

Well, the Firefly button and the camera button are one and the same. Meaning that whenever you’re using Firefly, you’re using the camera. Plus, of course, you’re turning on audio sensors that capture ambient sound.

And then you’re transmitting all those pictures and sound files to the grandaddy and global leader in connected cloud technology, the company that pretty much invented what we now call big data analytics for customer insights, and the largest online retailer in the wild wild west.

fire_homeAmazon.com, of course.

(Update: Amazon has clarified that while Firefly does use the camera and microphone, the camera app is separate from Firefly. Your personal photos and videos are not uploaded to the Firefly system; they’re stored separately in your personal storage account in Amazon’s cloud, and not used by Amazon in any way, Amazon says.)

See: Amazon Fire Phone product manager explains how ‘Firefly’ really works

All of those pictures require processing, analysis, and matching, presumably at a level — if they can identify 100 million objects — that can only be done in the cloud, and not on a small handheld device with 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of on-board storage.

Fortunately for you, dear consumer, Amazon has kindly consented to store all your photos, forever, in its vast cloudy server farms. How gracious Amazon is, providing that massive service for free! How lucky are you, getting all that for free!

(Update: Amazon says you can delete your photos and recordings from Firefly at any time. However, until you delete them, it does use any Firefly photos and recordings to enhance its recognition system.)

Probably not as lucky as Amazon.

By storing all the photos you’ll ever take with Firefly, along with GPS location data, ambient audio, and more metadata than you can shake a stick at in Amazon Web Services, Amazon will get unprecedented insight into who you are, what you own, where you go, what you do, who’s important in your life, what you like, and, probably, what you might be most likely to buy.

Babies in your pictures? Sell that dame diapers. Lots of old-school hot rods? See if you can sell Billy Bob some NASCAR shwag, or maybe beef jerky. Outdoorsy, are you, with your pictures of remote mountaintops and idyllic forest meadows? Clearly you need hiking boots and granola. Looking at a business card? Perhaps things she likes will be things you’ll like, too.

Big data? This is gargantuan data.

Privacy violations a la three-letter U.S. intelligence agency? This is the NSA’s wet dream.

Firefly is “instant gratification,” says TechCrunch. Fire Phone is an “amazing piece of hardware,” says Wired. Amazon’s Fire Phone APIs are a dream for developers, we said. Firefly lets you “easily price-check items,” says GigaOm. Firefly is the phone’s “sexiest feature,” we said.

It also might just make you Amazon’s bitch.

“We care about consumers’ privacy,” the Amazon press release announcing Fire Phone does not say.

More information:

Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN), a Fortune 500 company based in Seattle, opened on the World Wide Web in July 1995 and today offers Earth's Biggest Selection. Amazon.com, Inc. seeks to be Earth's most customer-centric company, where cu... read more »

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40 comments
Peter O\'Marah
Peter O\'Marah

WAAAAAAH amazon wants to sell me more directly targeted merchandise WAH WAH WAAAAAAAH, youre not gonna have a very good time in the future bud

Joel Reyna
Joel Reyna

How so? The headline is true. It "might" be the biggest privacy invasion ever.

James Polley
James Polley

The article continues to make its original claims, then follows each with "update: we've realised we were just making shit up here, it's not actually a problem, please ignore that last bit" But the headline still makes a false claim, and people are going to reshare it on Facebook without having read any more than the lie in the headline *sigh*

Allan Bush
Allan Bush

BFD. Obsessing over privacy is useless. Invasion is a buzz word used by security consultants and software developers to get the public scared that someone is oogling their tired butt to gain evil advantages when the military announces martial law. (Sarcasm)

Rasmus Joergensen
Rasmus Joergensen

Yes, it's a privacy invation, but...


Ever heard of facebook? It will take some time before Amazon reaches those levels of creepiness. At least Amazon is clear about wanting to sell stuff, while facebook claims that all they want to do is connect people with each other.

Nathan Harris
Nathan Harris

Privacy on the internet is a myth.  But so what?  If you think you *actually* have some level of real privacy these days, and you are 'on the grid' you're mistaken.  Even without Amazon or Google, I can learn everything about you in 30 minutes, with just a couple pieces of innocuous information about you.  Between the $30 background check I can buy, public records searches, Ancestry.com, land owner records, etc. etc. etc. you are already out there.  And all the internet did was make what was *already* public, easier to find.  


If you want privacy, get off the internet, sell your house, get rid of your cell phone, sell your car, live in a cabin, grow your food, ride a bike, etc.  


Don't want to do that?  Then understand this is the age where we are all accessible.  That's just the reality.

#NHL15Bergeron Bruins
#NHL15Bergeron Bruins

What an embarrassing article. Should be taken down after the updates render it even more laughable. I'm not about to buy this phone, but to just throw a hissyfit like this 'writer' did is unprofessional and attention-seeking. Terrible show of incompetence. 

ChrisP Asif
ChrisP Asif

I dunno. Seems like the corrections canceled out most of the points the article was attempting to make. BTW, don't want GPS data tacked onto your photos? Shut off that option. That's one of the first things I did when I got my (Android) phone. I assume iPhone, Windows and Fire Phone (Fire Phone? Really? Is someone at amazon a pyromaniac???) also have that option. Find it, shut it off. If you want someone to know where a picture was taken, tell them in a text, email or with that hole in your face that makes all the talky noises. 



The shopping app I use also uses the camera. Duh. Shazam, which can identify music and TV accesses you're microphone to record audio. Duh. Cloud storage? Not new either. Don't like it? Don't use it.


Seems like all Amazon's done is build the features of all those apps people have been using for several years now into one device and slapped their silly name on it. And this John Koetsier guy's gone off the deep end. 

If this guy can prove that any of these devices activate their cameras and microphones without the owner's knowledge THEN he'll have a reason to foam at the mouth and start running through town ringing bells and screaming. 

I usually consider myself a tad paranoid, but I'm not seeing the hissyfit-worthiness of this device. Which I'll not buy. Because it has a stupid name. Dumber, even, than "Microsoft Zune".


Curt Brown
Curt Brown

Even with the updates, this is a powerful  story that many don't seem to want to hear. Google is working on chips that can be implanted into our brains. But the happy trusting gullible walk blindly in, hands out for that free candy.

Angel Serrano
Angel Serrano

honestly ,  while i think that i understand people privacy concern.  Amazon is not into the social networking biz.   they just want your business.  not everything is a big conspiracy .  its called target marketing!

Big Yaz
Big Yaz

UPDATE: This article has been updated with facts that pretty much destroy its original premise. So, uh, nevermind...


Dan Johnson
Dan Johnson

Wow, this article is very unbiased and fair!

Christopher Plummer
Christopher Plummer

This article is near total garbage. You clearly make the point that only photos taken with the Firefly app - presumably for the purpose of recognizing objects in order to buy something - are used by Amazon. Then you proceed to spread apocalyptic fear by referencing photos that sound a lot more like the ones a person would take with the regular camera app, which we already know are protected from use by Amazon.

David Kirwan
David Kirwan

slow news day? MAKE SOMETHING UP! just make sure to include the word "might" so you can't be held liable...

John Morgan
John Morgan

It is only going to get worse, the more technology advances the more they will spy on us. I'm sure there is the people out there that will say, if your not doing anything wrong why do you have to worry. My butt it's my privacy. what is going to start to work is the company with the cryptic phones will start to sell more and more. and non tracking search engines like http://LookSeek.com the leave me alone search will start to become more popular.

Ric Sansand
Ric Sansand

I like you Amazon but you are the NSA's bitch like all other cloud companies and I think I will keep you at home and as blind as possible. So you can shove everything else you're selling outside a browser.


Not just no but hell no!

Cem Yildirim
Cem Yildirim

You want personalization, then you need to give data. It became so easy to just bitch about privacy while still enjoying the personalization you get from technology.

Josh Poulain
Josh Poulain

All of the privacy concerns mentioned in this article are already being done by Amazon when you visit the website. The only difference is that it's slightly more prevalent as it's always in your pocket. But if you download the Amazon app, you are essentially volunteering the same data every time you look at it. Apple and Google also already store your photos in the cloud to be potentially hacked by (or given to) the NSA. The only real difference between Amazon's phone and the the other options is that they will try to match what's in your photo to what you might want to buy. A privacy breach that goes a bit further than the competitors? Maybe. But not as big of a difference as the author makes it sound

Ricky Oswald
Ricky Oswald

If you ask for a glass of water and receive a glass of water, why would you complain about being served water?

Joshua Darlington
Joshua Darlington

Amazon started as a consumer data mining operation. Ultimately, beyond the NSA and the google amazon iffyness there are useful mundane everyday applications of survaillence tech. Also eventually the sneakers and snoopers may find a more social and directly engaging way of interacting w humans

Neil Dodds
Neil Dodds

So if all your photos are being beamed to Amazon what becomes of the sexy selfie?

Diane A. Curran
Diane A. Curran

Glad you wrote this so quickly, I think this phone is going to have some major backlash.


Murray Macdonald
Murray Macdonald

I think this genii was out of the bottle a few years ago. For example Google phones and devices upload to Google's cloud where their "Auto Awesomize" image processing is done behind the curtain. It is clear they are doing significant image processing. When auto-enhancing images it is common to look for people, faces, kids, plants, snow, water, sky, objects, etc... Google also recognizes text, signs, barcodes, and other strategic things. To see what they're capable of play with Google's goggles application or, if you're using chrome, hold the s key and right click on any image to do an instant image search. The results are impressive. I suspect they use such technologies on cloud images to produce strategic metadata.

Amit Kumar Shukla
Amit Kumar Shukla

Did we ever notice/bother that google is doing something similar called selective advertisement?

Neeraj Shukla
Neeraj Shukla

This is what I was thinking. I mean, it really would know every photo on the phone. Crazy.

Mihail Tanev
Mihail Tanev

Amazon wants our data and habits. Don't buy this phone...

Alton Gillard
Alton Gillard

No one is going to buy this thing.  Yes, there's innovation there, but the timing is bad, price points are way too high, and it's kinda ugly.

Josh Byrd
Josh Byrd

@Curt Brown So you distrust for distrust sake? That makes no sense. Everything being made goes through intensive testing and reviewing and with as big as both these companies are every country is monitoring them for distribution into their country. Not to mention how hard it will be to have all those Engineers, Programmers, Doctors, and more all keeping secrets about some evil plot. It just not feasible. But people like you just see the future and go oh no they will do evil with this! Just like they did with cars, indoor plumbing, modern medicine, and more. 

Michael von Pallutz
Michael von Pallutz

@Angel Serrano there are others very much interested in our privacy and they will get from Amazon just what they need,if not by exceptence than by  HOMELAND SECURITY MATTER'S ,you are not really that naive,right lol


ChrisP Asif
ChrisP Asif

@Alton Gillard 

It's kinda ugly, huh? What I see up there looks an awful lot like the front of an iPhone...

Bryan Cera
Bryan Cera

@Josh Byrd @Curt Brown Yea, they could never get any evil plans in place secretly to continue to monitor and control us...oh, except for the whole NSA $hit...including the backdoors created in hardware/software so they can spy and perform mass data collection along with facial recognition and individual person identification programs...oh and the official REAL copies of govt agencies - DEA, NSA, CIA, FBI - manuals which describe how to create 'parallel' stories of how agents decide to go after individuals (i.e. they LIE and MAKE UP something like a traffic offense being the reason someone gets pulled over when in reality, theyve been watching already having received a 'tip' from some other agency or concerned citizen...that may or may not be true or accurate.