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Groups Claim Amazon Patent Targets Kids' Privacy

By John P. Mello Jr.
Mar 15, 2005 7:53 AM PT

Privacy advocates knocked yesterday for a patent they claim will jeopardize the privacy of children.

Groups Claim Amazon Patent Targets Kids' Privacy

According to the patent approved by the U.S. Patent Office last week, the invention "is a system and method of determining the age of an item recipient, such a gift recipient."

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

Could Violate Federal Law

Unlike Amazon's typical data mining efforts, Coyle explained, this patent shows that the company intends to target children.

"If you look at the patent and you look at what they're gathering, all the information is being gathered about age-appropriate products," she told TechNewsWorld. "There's really no such thing as age-appropriate products for adults."

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

Gathering information about children for an online retailer like Amazon can be dicey because that practice is regulated by federal law, the Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act, or COPPA.

"That law states that you cannot gather personal identification information about a child without a parent's permission," Coyle said. "It looks like there's a good chance that if they were to implement this patent, which they claim 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 that Amazon intends to capture information from people who are not its customers, Coyle noted.

"It's not gathering information about the person doing the purchasing," she said. "It's about the recipient of a gift."

People who log onto Amazon and buy something give up their personal information voluntarily, she explained. "If someone sends you a gift," she said, "you haven't agreed to give up your information, so it's gathering information about people who have not agreed to be customers.

"People who are making purchases and sending a gift are doing it with the best of intentions," she continued. "A grandparent, for instance, purchasing a gift for a grandchild is a very sweet thing to do, and I'm sure that grandparent isn't thinking at that moment, 'I've just violated this poor kid'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 outlined in the patent included the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Junkbusters, a consumer watchdog group.

Hypothetical Criticism

To some eyes, however, it isn't clear that the patent has kids in its laser sight. "It's hard to tell if they're targeting kids or targeting parents who are buying for the kids," Jeffrey D. Neuburger, a partner with Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner in New York City, told TechNewsWorld.

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

She discounted the value of attacks on the patent. "It's hypothetical criticism since this technology is not in use," she told TechNewsWorld.

She explained that it's not unusual for Amazon to file for patents that won't be implemented. Five years ago, the processes in this patent seemed like 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 that consumers should never let their guard down when they're online, asserted Neuburger.

"When people shop online they should be aware that everything that they're doing 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 whether that's worth the trade-off of additional convenience."

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