O Big Brother, Where Art Thou?

Image Credit: Getty Images, Sundry Photography.

Sign up for smart news, insights, and analysis on the biggest financial stories of the day.

Don’t look over your shoulder, look into your doorbell.

New figures from Amazon show the amount of times it handed user data over to governments increased a whopping 800% in the last six months of 2020. That includes user shopping searches and data pulled from Echo virtual assistants, Fire tablets and remotes, and Ring doorbell devices.

At the same time, Amazon has ramped up a controversial surveillance network that partners Ring with U.S. police departments. It has critics asking, is this Big Tech or Big Brother?

Fed in the Clouds

Requests for user data are climbing faster than a viral Reddit stock. Amazon responded to 27,664 government demands for information on customers from July to the end of the year, up from 3,222 in the first six months of the year.

  • German authorities were responsible for 42% of overall requests, with Spain and Italy tied in second place with 18% each, and the U.S. fourth with 11%.
  • But for Amazon Web Services cloud services, 75% of the 523 data requests were made by U.S. authorities.

Devil in the Undisclosed Details: Amazon is notoriously secret about what it does with user data. In 2015, it became the last of the major Silicon Valley titans to put out a transparency report. Ever since, it has increasingly removed details from each successive report, like data on takedown notices and account removals.

That Was Unwarranted

Over 2,000 U.S. police departments — twice as many as a year ago — are now partnered with Amazon’s Ring doorbell system, which allows them to request footage captured by the devices from user homes.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation called the initiative a “massive and unchallenged de facto CCTV surveillance network.”

Amazon, though, says it refuses requests that it believes are excessive. Last year the company complied with 57% of police requests to Ring, down from 68% the year before. But the number of requests grew by more than 150% to 1,900.

The Takeaway:

Like your privacy? Order a vintage doorbell. You can even do it on Amazon.