June 23, 2014, 12:27 PM — Amazon launched a new smartphone last week. It's called the Amazon Fire phone, and it sports some unique hardware, software and services.
The public has zeroed in on some of the "wow!" features, including a 3D-like interface and the ability to recognize everything from famous works of art to TV shows to random products.
The pundits have detailed the utility of these very features to Amazon for the purpose of "showrooming" -- encountering media and products in the real world, using the Fire phone's sensors to recognize them, then using the convenient "buy" button to get those products from Amazon.
I'm here to detail a third dimension, if you will, to the Amazon Fire phone -- it's the most effective device ever sold for harvesting the personal data from its owner. Let's break this down.
Firefly recognizes things. It uses either the phone's camera or microphone to collect your data, which is then uploaded to a remote server, processed, and the results returned to you.
Firefly is presented as a single feature. In fact, it's a well-packaged collection of software and services that exist elsewhere on other platforms in a scattershot, disjointed form. It works like a combination of the Google Goggles app, which can recognize products via the camera, plus Google Now, which can recognize songs and TV shows via a phone's microphone.
One difference is that the Fire phone has a dedicated Firefly button which, when pressed, activates both camera and microphone to recognize whatever it can. Another is that if that object or content is available on Amazon, the phone will facilitate your purchase of it.
You can point the Fire phone's camera at a book you see in a bookstore window, press the Firefly button, and in a few seconds that book will likely be displayed on your screen with a "buy" button. Firefly can recognize movie posters, games and even songs and TV shows, which it determines by processing the sound coming in to the Fire phone's microphone.
It's not just about commerce. Firefly can recognize phone numbers for one-tap dialing, works of art and even QR codes.
The database can recognize 100 million objects, according to Amazon.
Here's a shocking fact about Firefly: When the Firefly button is pressed, a picture and audio clip plus GPS coordinates are all uploaded to Amazon's servers every time. Amazon retains the data on their servers.
If you want it to recognize a song, it still uploads a picture. If you want to recognize a product, it still uploads an audio clip. What is promoted as a user benefit (one-button for recognizing anything) is in fact the opening of a window to let Amazon into your life (which users have already granted permission for).
Take a picture of a book, a novel for instance, and you also upload audio. Let's say the audio frequently picks up TV cooking shows that you might be watching in the background. Amazon could start serving you ads for cooking products, even though you never explicitly used the Fire phone for a purpose related to cooking or cooking products.
Use Firefly at home -- Amazon can compare the GPS data with the shipping address they have on file -- and they can determine by the times of day that you're likely to either work from home or you don't work.
The GPS can tell them whether you're at Target or at Tiffany's.
It's not hard to see how this data could help Amazon know you better, and in fact construct a highly accurate and detailed profile about you and your life, your family, your activities and your interests.
Firefly takes data harvesting to a whole new, unprecedented level. It can harvest user data totally unrelated to the feature you think you're using.
Note that Amazon does allow you to manually delete any image or sound recording uploaded through Firefly.
The Amazon Fire phone's dynamic perspective feature is a 3D-like illusion that makes it appear that objects on the screen have depth. Amazon achieves this illusion by knowing where your eyes and head are, then showing you what you would see if the objects were 3D.
The unique hardware that enables this illusion is four low-power cameras and four LEDs. It works even when the user is covering two of the cameras.
The technology behind dynamic perspective is pretty amazing. But for the purposes of this column, suffice it to say that the phone knows when your face is looking at the screen and framed within the front-facing camera's range.
If Amazon wanted to construct the greatest face-recognition profile of your face ever assembled, the Fire phone would be the ideal tool for doing that. Whenever you're using dynamic perspective to use the 3D-like menus or playing a 3D-like game, the phone knows exactly where your face is during these activities. It could be easy to instruct the phone to snap a picture of your face every time. These images could then be combined to result in a super-reliable profile on you that could recognize your face every time some other camera encountered it.
Let me be clear: I'm not accusing Amazon of taking pictures of your face. If I had to guess, I would guess they are not doing this.
But there are three things that concern me about all this. The first is that, to the best of my knowledge, Amazon hasn't publicly promised that they do not and will never photograph users' faces in this way.
The second is that without such a promise, they could turn on that capability at any time in the future.
And third, Amazon hasn't spelled out exactly how they prevent hackers and government spy agencies and third-party app makers from doing this.
Creating a device optimized for knowing exactly when your face is looking at the camera demands that Amazon be transparent about what they are and are not doing now and in the future.
Amazon provides the unique service of unlimited cloud storage of photographs. Amazon says they don't do image recognition or other processing on personal photos uploaded to the cloud (unlike Google, which is really good at doing this on Google+).
Amazon hasn't, to the best of my knowledge, promised to never retroactively scan and recognize uploaded images.
One can imagine three years hence, when users are more jaded and worn down by massive and constant privacy invasions, that Amazon might choose to turn some killer future recognition algorithm on the pictures people have been taking and uploading for years in order to compete more effectively against other data-harvesting companies.
If Amazon doesn't promise to never do this, then they're just leaving that option open, and potential buyers need to be aware of this.
Instead of using Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox or other browsers that are robust, popular and free, Amazon went to the trouble of creating its own web browser from scratch. And it didn't do it because it likes the idea of creating new code. And certainly wasn't done because of customer demand.
Amazon did it because browsers enable the harvesting of user data, which can be applied to custom advertising and relevant marketing.
Amazon's web browser is called the Silk browser. Silk was first shipped for Kindle tablets, but the Fire phone's got it, too.
The weird thing about the Silk browser is that it acts not like a web browser, but like an ISP. It caches URLs and web pages on Amazon servers, ostensibly to improve performance. That gives Amazon extraordinary abilities to harvest web surfing data far beyond mere cookie tracking.
The company claims that it harvests that data, but doesn't associate it with individuals.
The Silk browser is governed by Amazon's privacy policies, which are pretty upfront, saying: "We receive and store any information you enter on our Web site or give us in any other way." Your recourse, if you don't like this policy, is to "exit the browser and do not install, use, or access Amazon Silk."
But I think the fact that Amazon built and exclusively offers their own web browser is highly suspicious and demands far more transparency about what exactly they do with the browser data.
Existing Amazon data
The data harvested by Amazon's Fire phone will almost certainly be combined with data Amazon learns about you from your activity on Amazon.com -- your address, your interests (as expressed by your book-buying and shopping histories) and much more.
The big-data profiling that's possible with this data -- even if Amazon explicitly revealed what they collect -- is beyond human imagination.
I believe it's reasonable to say that Amazon's Fire phone represents a leap-frogging of the Googles and the Facebooks of the world in terms of personal data harvesting. There's nothing else like this -- no other product has gone this far in personal data harvesting.
The phone either does or could collect sounds and pictures from your life, your location, pictures of your face in different lighting conditions, all the pictures you take and all your web surfing.
Amazon is capable of storing, analyzing and recognizing all this data, and combining it with your personal information collected from your Amazon browsing and shopping over the years -- what you read, what you buy, where you live, what you watch and listen to, who you send gifts to and their addresses as well.
Because the Fire phone and Amazon are capable of the most comprehensive and aggressive personal data harvesting ever offered in any product, Amazon needs to be far more transparent and detailed about what the phone actually does, what it will do in the future and how Amazon uses and protects all this data now and in the future.
So until they do that, my strong recommendation is: Do not buy the Amazon Fire phone.