Groups Claim Amazon Patent Targets Kids’ Privacy

Privacy advocates knocked Amazon.com yesterday for a patent they claim willjeopardize the privacy of children.

According to the patent approved by the U.S. Patent Office last week, theinvention “is a system and method of determining the age of an itemrecipient, such a gift recipient.”

While Amazon is known for its acumen in mining data it has collected fromits customers for boosting sales through cross-selling and up-selling, thislatest patent departs from the online mega-retailer’s past practices in somesignificant ways, according to Karen Coyle, a spokesperson for ComputerProfessionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) in Palo Alto, California.

Could Violate Federal Law

Unlike Amazon’s typical data mining efforts, Coyle explained, this patentshows that the company intends to target children.

“If you look at the patent and you look at what they’re gathering, all theinformation is being gathered about age-appropriate products,” she toldTechNewsWorld. “There’s really no such thing as age-appropriate products foradults.”

She explained that the system outlined in the patent allows Amazon to trackthe age-appropriateness of gifts to a recipient over time in order to makesuggestions for future gifts.

Gathering information about children for an online retailer like Amazon canbe dicey because that practice is regulated by federal law, theChildren’s Online Privacy and Protection Act, or COPPA.

“That law states that you cannot gather personal identification informationabout a child without a parent’s permission,” Coyle said. “It looks likethere’s a good chance that if they were to implement this patent, which theyclaim they haven’t, that they could come up against U.S. law.”

Unwitting Gift Recipients

Another departure from existing practice suggested by the patent is thatAmazon intends to capture information from people who are not its customers,Coyle noted.

“It’s not gathering information about the person doing the purchasing,” shesaid. “It’s about the recipient of a gift.”

People who log onto Amazon and buy something give up their personalinformation voluntarily, she explained. “If someone sends you a gift,” shesaid, “you haven’t agreed to give up your information, so it’s gatheringinformation about people who have not agreed to be customers.

“People who are making purchases and sending a gift are doing it with thebest of intentions,” she continued. “A grandparent, for instance, purchasinga gift for a grandchild is a very sweet thing to do, and I’m sure thatgrandparent isn’t thinking at that moment, ‘I’ve just violated this poorkid’s privacy,’ yet that is a fact.

“It’s taking advantage of a vulnerable relationship,” she added.

Along with CPSR, groups raising public objections to the practices outlinedin the patent included the Electronic Privacy Information Center andJunkbusters, a consumer watchdog group.

Hypothetical Criticism

To some eyes, however, it isn’t clear that the patent has kids in its lasersight. “It’s hard to tell if they’re targeting kids or targeting parents whoare buying for the kids,” Jeffrey D. Neuburger, a partner with Brown RaysmanMillstein Felder & Steiner in New York City, told TechNewsWorld.

And in any case, says Amazon spokesperson Patty Smith, the company has no plans toimplement the process detailed in the patent, which was filed with thePatent Office five years ago.

She discounted the value of attacks on the patent. “It’s hypotheticalcriticism since this technology is not in use,” she told TechNewsWorld.

She explained that it’s not unusual for Amazon to file for patents thatwon’t be implemented. Five years ago, the processes in this patent seemedlike good ideas, but a lot of things can change in five years, she said.

She added that Amazon would never do anything to violate COPPA.

Keep Guard Up

Hypothetical or not, this latest privacy flap reveals once again thatconsumers should never let their guard down when they’re online, assertedNeuburger.

“When people shop online they should be aware that everything that they’redoing is being collected and used in some way for analysis,” he said.”That’s a fact. People have to understand that. And the question is whetherthat’s worth the trade-off of additional convenience.”

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