Amazon wants to own everything retail, and that’s terrifying.
Photo: Jim Nix on Flickr

Amazon wants to own everything retail, and that’s terrifying.

In 2016, Amazon launched its Amazon Go grocery stores, where a customer installs an app, then sensors across the store track what products they put in their cart. To be clear, these are physical retails stores, not the online shopping carts we all use daily. To check out, customers simply leave the store and are charged automatically. No registers, no checkout lines.

Yesterday, Amazon launched its new Just Walk Out product, offering the checkout-less experience to any shop with the money to buy it. Just Walk Out differs from Amazon Go’s store implementation in that you just need to swipe your credit card when you enter: no app required.

In a just and fair society where we didn’t have to worry about our privacy, this would be an amazing technology. But we don’t yet live in that world, and I’m terrified of what this is going to mean.

Replacing People with Machines

First, there’s the human factor: corporations are using automation and machines to replace people. Automation under capitalism means replacing expensive human labor with comparatively inexpensive machines that don’t get sick, take time off — or unionize.

According the Future of Jobs Report 2018 from the World Economic Forum, across the world there could be as many as 75 million jobs lost to automation. The WEF tries to put a positive spin on that by also reporting that 133 million new jobs could be created. However, those new jobs would mostly be high-tech jobs. Without guaranteed retraining they’d be out of reach of many replaced workers.

…And Machines Sucking Up Your Data

Then there’s the data privacy angle. Amazon hasn’t provided information yet on how much it will cost to install Just Walk Out, but base cost is unlikely to be what they’re interested in profiting from. Amazon is a massive datastore: tracking what products we’ve looked at across the Internet and what we’re searching for on the site.

They’ve come a long way from the upstart online book store they started as 20 years ago.

The benefit Amazon gets out of this deal is information on your shopping habits. What physical stores you go to. When and how often you go. Every item you purchase at them. They slyly claim that Just Walk Out only gets what it needs to give you a receipt, but that’s a lot of information.

What data does Just Walk Out technology collect from my shoppers?
We only collect the data needed to provide shoppers with an accurate receipt. Shoppers can think of this as similar to typical security camera footage.

The Just Walk Out website

By tying credit/debit cards used in a store to your online purchases, Amazon removes the middleman. They don’t have to purchase data from credit card companies and in fact will get even more detailed, itemized receipts. (Yes, credit card companies already share data on purchases you make.)

The reference Amazon makes to “typical security camera footage” is also eerie, especially when you consider that the company also offers the Rekognition facial recognition system. With Rekognition, one can upload and process 1,000 images for just $1.00. While Rekognition customers do have to bring their own set of names and faces to compare against, the Clearview AI app scandal showed that it’s pretty trivial to scrape pictures and names from social media profiles and news websites. Nothing would technically stop a store from acquiring a similar set of data and applying it to video frames of people in their stores.

Cash is King for Privacy. Ban Cashless.

When it comes to privacy, cash is king. Already, New Jersey, New York City, Massachusetts and the city of Philadelphia require stores to accept cash. Washington, D.C. and Chicago are considering similar legislation. Banning cash is also discriminatory against immigrants and others who do not have access to traditional banking services. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have federal regulations forcing businesses to accept cash.