Illustration: Ana Kova

Amazon Is Watching

The Internet giant is wiring homes, neighborhoods, and cities with cameras and microphones, and powering the nation’s intelligence services. Are we sure we can trust it?

Will Oremus
Published in
20 min readJun 27, 2019


WWhen you think of Amazon, you might think of comparison shopping from your couch, buying exactly what you want, for less than you’d pay at the store. You might think of a delivery person dropping a package at your door, right on time, and how if there’s anything amiss you can send it back for a full refund. You might think of asking Alexa to play a song or a TV show or turn on the lights, and the marvel of how it all just works (usually). You might think of a Prime members’ discount on avocados at Whole Foods, which Amazon acquired in 2017.

Amazon’s reputation for serving its customers with low prices and ruthless efficiency might help to explain why, in survey after survey, the Seattle-based company ranks as America’s most valuable — nay, most loved — brand. One recent study found that Amazon is the second most-trusted institution of any kind in the United States, ahead of Google, the police, and the higher-education system, and trailing only the U.S. military. At a time when an endless string of privacy and election scandals has left Facebook’s reputation in smoldering ruins, and Google’s has been dented by YouTube’s radicalization and content moderation woes, Amazon’s is stronger than ever.

But Amazon’s public image as a cheerfully dependable “everything store” belies the vast and secretive behemoth that it has become — and how the products it’s building today could erode our privacy not just online but also in the physical world. Even as rival tech companies reassess their data practices, rethink their responsibilities, and call for new regulations, Amazon is doubling down on surveillance devices, disclaiming responsibility for how its technology is used, and dismissing concerns raised by academics, the media, politicians, and its own employees.

“We’re all hoping they’re not making a panopticon,” says Lindsey Barrett, staff attorney at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation. Last month, the institute, serving as counsel to a group of 19 watchdog groups, called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Amazon for