Amazon wages secret war on Americans’ privacy, documents show
The governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, speaking in 2018 after Amazon picked the state as the site of its new headquarters. The e-commerce giant persuaded state lawmakers to pass a privacy bill drafted by Amazon itself. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Amazon.com Inc has amassed a vast amount of sensitive personal information on its customers. Internal documents reveal how a former aide to Joe Biden helped the tech giant build a lobbying juggernaut that has gutted legislation in two dozen states seeking to give consumers more control over their data.
In recent years, Amazon.com Inc has killed or undermined privacy protections in more than three dozen bills across 25 states, as the e-commerce giant amassed a lucrative trove of personal data on millions of American consumers.
In Virginia, the company boosted political donations tenfold over four years before persuading lawmakers this year to pass an industry-friendly privacy bill that Amazon itself drafted. In California, the company stifled proposed restrictions on the industry’s collection and sharing of consumer voice recordings gathered by tech devices. And in its home state of Washington, Amazon won so many exemptions and amendments to a bill regulating biometric data, such as voice recordings or facial scans, that the resulting 2017 law had “little, if any” impact on its practices, according to an internal Amazon document.
The architect of this under-the-radar campaign to smother privacy protections has been Jay Carney, who previously served as communications director for Joe Biden, when Biden was vice president, and as press secretary for President Barack Obama. Hired by Amazon in 2015, Carney reported to founder Jeff Bezos and built a lobbying and public-policy juggernaut that has grown from two dozen employees to about 250, according to Amazon documents and two former employees with knowledge of recent staffing.
One 2018 document reviewing executives’ goals for the prior year listed privacy regulation as a primary target for Carney. One objective: “Change or block US and EU regulation/legislation that would impede growth for Alexa-powered devices,” referring to Amazon’s popular voice-assistant technology. The mission included defeating restrictions on artificial intelligence and biometric technologies, along with blocking efforts to make companies disclose the data they keep on consumers.
This story is based on a Reuters review of hundreds of internal Amazon documents and interviews with more than 70 lobbyists, advocates, policymakers and their staffers involved in legislation Amazon targeted, along with 10 former Amazon public-policy and legal employees. It is the third in a series of reports revealing how the company has pursued business practices that harm small businesses or put its own interests above those of consumers. The previous articles showed how Amazon has circumvented e-commerce regulations meant to protect Indian retailers, and how it copied products and rigged search results to promote its own brands over those of other vendors on its India platform.
In an August interview with Reuters, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy declined to comment on why the company has opposed major privacy-protection bills but said: “We have always been very passionate about the privacy of our customers.” An Amazon webpage that explains Alexa calls privacy the technology’s “foundational principle.”
In a statement, Amazon said: “The premise of this story is flawed and includes reporting that relies on early, incomplete drafts of documents to draw incorrect conclusions.” The company said it protects consumers’ privacy and doesn’t sell their data. “We know we must get privacy right in order to meet our customers’ high expectations.”
Amazon said the 2018 document listing Carney’s goals to defeat privacy regulation is “out-of-date” and does not reflect the company’s current public-policy objectives. The company said it has opposed “poorly crafted” state privacy bills. It said it would prefer a federal law that “requires transparency about data practices, prohibits the sale of personal data without consent, and ensures that consumers have the right to request access to and delete their personal information.”
Amazon’s lobbying against privacy protections aims to preserve the company’s access to detailed consumer data that has fueled its explosive online-retailing growth and provided an advantage in emerging technologies, according to the Amazon documents and former employees. The data Amazon amasses includes Alexa voice recordings; videos from home-camera systems; personal health data from fitness trackers; and data on consumers’ web-searching and buying habits from its e-commerce business.
Some of this information is highly sensitive. Under a 2018 California law that passed despite Amazon’s opposition, consumers can access the personal data that technology companies keep on them. After losing that state battle, Amazon last year started allowing all U.S. consumers to access their data. (Customers can request their data at this link.) Seven Reuters reporters obtained and examined their own Amazon dossiers.
One found that Amazon had more than 90,000 recordings Alexa devices made of the reporter’s family members since 2017. In some, young children are heard asking questions about sexual anatomy, including: “Alexa, what is a vagina?” (See related article.)
“When’s the last time you let a stranger into your house and let them listen to your conversations, watch your TV, look at the comings and goings on your video cameras?” he asked. “The company is a stranger in your personal space, following you around.”
Asked about the information it harvests, Amazon said customers appreciate that it personalizes services for them, such as shopping recommendations or music selections on smart speakers, “based on the data we collect.”
Amazon said it wants one national privacy law rather than a “patchwork” of state regulations. Asked for details of any federal privacy legislation it has supported, Amazon did not name a specific bill. The company did provide three examples of what it described as statements of public support by its executives for federal consumer-privacy legislation.
In those cases, Reuters found, the executives were expressing either direct opposition to such a law, opposition to existing state privacy protections, or advocacy for industry-friendly measures opposed by consumer advocates. No major federal privacy legislation has passed Congress in years because members have been deadlocked on the issue.
Carney and his deputies set the tone for a more aggressive lobbying operation early in his tenure, drafting a strategy memo for a new global corporate-affairs department that combined public-policy and public-relations teams.
The memo was written in 2015 with the help of communications executive Drew Herdener and public-policy leader Brian Huseman. A draft version asserted that “journalists and policymakers should respect Amazon as a force for good” because it improves customers’ lives and creates “millions of jobs and broader economic prosperity.”
As executives edited the draft, Herdener summed up a central goal in a margin note: “We want policymakers and press to fear us,” he wrote. He described this desire as a “mantra” that had united department leaders in a Washington strategy session.
The final 4,200-word version, which Carney presented to Amazon’s board of directors in November 2015, vowed the department would ensure “journalists and policymakers don’t take for granted the good that Amazon does when they speak publicly about us and make decisions affecting our business or reputation.”
Carney told the directors that the company’s success had made it a “bigger and more frequent target for critics,” according to a copy of his presentation. Calling Amazon’s previous lobbying strategies “frugal” and “narrow,” Carney advised a more ambitious approach.
Among the Carney team’s first targets was a Washington state bill to regulate biometrics, including voice recordings, fingerprints and face scans. State House Rep. Jeff Morris, chair of the technology committee, introduced a measure in January 2015 seeking to give consumers more control over such data.
The bill eventually passed in 2017, but only after lobbyists for Amazon and other firms had chiseled away at its privacy protections by convincing lawmakers to insert alternative language, often verbatim, according to emails between lawmakers and Amazon lobbyists obtained by Reuters through public-records requests.
Amazon’s public-policy team had a different take in a 2017 U.S. policy update on digital devices: The team, it said, had negotiated “favorable changes” that meant the law would have “little, if any, direct impact on Amazon’s practices.”
Amazon representatives never took a public position on the bill, relying instead on trade groups the company funded to oppose it at hearings, according to Amazon documents and public records of the debate. That was part of a larger strategy, former staffers said, allowing Amazon to avoid public heat for opposing consumer-protection measures.
Outside lobbyist Kim Clauson took the lead in fighting the Washington bill. Clauson said in emails to Morris that the bill’s definition of “biometric identifier” was overbroad and that consumer notification and consent requirements would only confuse people.
The emails show Clauson won an exemption for voice recordings, sparing Alexa devices from regulation. In February 2016, she emailed Morris and Rep. Mark Harmsworth, a Republican co-author, seeking changes to the biometric-data definition. A technology-committee staffer confirmed in an email to the authors that the bill had been amended with “the exact definition for biometric information provided by Amazon.”
In 2017, the two legislators widened that definition in a way that might apply to voice recordings. That drew a rebuke from Clauson, who emailed Harmsworth saying: “We do not agree to the definition.” She sent him a bill markup from privacy consultant Leslie Dunlap calling the definition “not acceptable.” Amazon paid Dunlap’s firm $15,000 a month, a 2017 Amazon public-policy planning document shows.
Harmsworth and Morris have since left the Washington legislature. Both said the economic impact of Amazon and the technology industry factored into their decisions. Morris said the authors sought a “middle ground” that protected consumers without harming companies including Amazon, a major state employer. Both said Amazon did not have outsized influence.
Consumer advocates considered the resulting law essentially worthless, said Shankar Narayan, a lawyer at the time for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state. “It’s riddled with so many holes; it’s like a Swiss cheese,” Narayan said. “It falls in the category of bills that try to make you feel better about biometrics without providing meaningful protection.”
The corporate-affairs operation’s rising influence on state legislation owed both to the leadership of Carney and Huseman and the growing resources at their disposal, according to former employees and Amazon records. By 2020, Amazon had registered at least 180 lobbyists in 44 U.S. states, up from at least 62 lobbyists in 27 states in 2014, the year before Carney arrived, according to a Reuters analysis of state records.
Amazon relies on a vast database of consumer voice recordings for ongoing development of Alexa technology. The devices start recording when they detect a user saying a “wake word” – such as “Alexa” – that signals the start of a command or question. Staffers sometimes review these recordings to assess and improve the technology, Amazon said.
Amazon has fought bills that would require the company to notify customers that it keeps their recordings and to secure their consent. The devices’ default setting stores all voice recordings and transcripts. Amazon said users can opt out of having their recordings examined or adjust settings to prevent them from being stored.
Placing voice assistants in homes, cars and offices is central to Amazon’s goal of becoming ubiquitous in consumers’ lives, always ready to answer their questions or to sell them, for instance, toilet paper or dish soap when they run out. Bezos has said Amazon has often sold Alexa devices at a discount, sometimes below Amazon’s cost, underscoring the long-term play to use voice technology to drive sales of all products.
Amazon dominates U.S. smart speaker sales. An estimated 69% of smart-speaker users, about 64 million people, use devices from Amazon, according to research firm Insider Intelligence. In May, Bezos told shareholders that Alexa had the potential to be a fourth “pillar” of Amazon’s business, along with its online marketplace, its Amazon Prime loyalty club and Amazon Web Services cloud-computing unit.
Amazon hired Carney as its emerging tech-device business faced growing scrutiny over privacy concerns. The company found him in a 16-month search, said Diego Piacentini, who was involved in the recruiting. Before his White House stint, Carney spent two decades as a Time magazine journalist, including postings in Washington and in Moscow, where he covered the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Carney’s writing ability impressed Bezos, who eschewed bullet-pointed presentations in favor of “six-pagers,” carefully crafted narratives on high-priority issues. The founder often solicited Carney’s opinion during meetings of the so-called S-team, the senior executives who advised Bezos, said Piacentini, an S-team member who left the company in 2016.
Carney made his mark early when he persuaded a reluctant Bezos to let him publicly excoriate a New York Times story on Amazon’s work culture, Piacentini said. (See the Times’ response.) But Piacentini described Carney as focusing “way more” on policy than public relations.
Amazon said in its statement that it needed to ramp up public-policy efforts as it grew and diversified its business. The company hired Carney and expanded his department “to educate lawmakers, regulators and the public about Amazon in a more coordinated and focused way.”
Former employees said Carney focused on high-level strategy and delegated supervision of day-to-day lobbying to Huseman. A former U.S. Federal Trade Commission attorney who joined Amazon in 2012, Huseman was an exacting manager. He wanted to know the whereabouts of all of his employees and regularly made them justify their above-market paychecks, three former staffers said. He was known for obsessing over the smallest grammatical and formatting details of six-pagers and for expecting quick responses to late-night work messages.
Amazon launched a “watering the flowers” program to cultivate a “well-tended garden” of VIPs (Very Important Policymakers) through carefully tracked political donations, meetings and Amazon site tours.
Carney and Huseman adopted a core tenet of Amazon’s corporate culture – data-driven management – as they expanded a program called “watering the flowers,” an effort to cultivate politicians. Its goal was to create a “well-tended garden” of influencers who could help with “policy challenges or crises,” according to a 2014 public-policy six-pager that outlined the effort.
The program spawned metrics for public-policy staffers. They were required to enter every policymaker and staff contact into a database, according to former Amazon employees and company documents. A 2017 public-policy planning document touted more than 1,000 watering-the-flowers engagements in the year’s first half by the team covering North and South America, up 30% from the same period the year before. Staffers’ metrics were circulated to colleagues quarterly; each had to explain why they did or didn’t meet goals.
Amazon categorized officials by their strategic importance, according to the 2014 document. The highest tier included leaders in Congress and in the legislatures of two key states: California and Washington, where Amazon fought privacy legislation. Such VIPs (“Very Important Policymakers”) should be targeted for meetings, Amazon site visits or campaign donations at least annually.
Another tactic Amazon uses to sway lawmakers, three former Amazon public-policy staffers said in interviews, is to highlight the company’s job creation. The company often used its gargantuan warehouses to host its meetings with politicians, the internal documents show.
The company also gave public-policy staffers a mobile app enabling them to look up the number of Amazon employees in a given politician’s electoral district, the three former employees said. Company lobbyists would open lawmaker meetings with such figures, which two of the employees said carried an implied threat: These are jobs Amazon can take away. One called job creation the public-policy team’s “fundamental bargaining chip.”
Amazon public-policy manager Lisa Kohn informed Illinois officials in August 2017 about the perils of regulating job-creating tech companies, according to an email from Kohn to Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s chief of staff, obtained by Reuters through a public-records request.
Kohn asked the governor to veto legislation that would require technology companies to get consumers’ permission before tracking their whereabouts on smartphones. In one email, she sent the Rauner aide a letter from a trade group Amazon helped fund, warning that the bill sent a “terrible signal” to companies fueling the state’s economy and imposed “needless burdens that threaten technology investment and job creation in Illinois.”
The Republican governor gave the same rationale in announcing his veto of the bill in September 2017, saying it would have resulted “in job loss across the state.” The veto came days after Amazon announced it would create tens of thousands of jobs at a second North American headquarters, setting off a competition among cities and states to offer the company lavish tax breaks. Illinois wanted the headquarters for Chicago. Amazon specified that it wanted “a business-friendly environment.”
Amazon’s public-policy team claimed credit for killing the measure in an internal January 2018 public-policy update: “In Illinois, we defeated a problematic geolocation bill by obtaining a veto from the governor.”
In its statement, Amazon acknowledged that its representatives “regularly remind” politicians of the many Amazon workers in their districts, but said the company would never use job creation as “legislative leverage.” Amazon said it did not discuss its plans for a second headquarters with Illinois officials in the context of the geolocation bill it opposed.
Amazon tried but failed to derail the 2018 California law, the first of its kind in the United States, that allowed consumers to request the personal data companies stored on them. The 2018 Amazon document reviewing executive goals discussed plans to oppose the measure, noting concern about its “right to know” provisions for consumers. The 2018 public-policy update said of the proposal: “We strongly prefer no regulation, but if regulation becomes inevitable, we will seek amendment language to narrow any new requirements to the greatest extent possible.”
The law’s passage was considered a major failure internally, a former Amazon public-policy employee said. An Amazon legal-strategy document written after the bill became law called the measure emblematic of “troubling regulatory and legislative trends” that “caught us by surprise.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and the ranking member of the judiciary committee, was among Amazon’s top-tier VIPs, the 2014 watering-the-flowers document shows. Last month, Grassley co-authored a bill with Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar that would prohibit companies including Amazon from favoring their own products on their e-commerce platforms.
Still, as Carney’s operation grew, it racked up major victories. In California, the e-commerce giant has undermined three efforts to require companies to notify consumers or get their permission before storing or sharing their voice recordings, according to Amazon documents and interviews with legislators.
Amazon’s latest effort to stop regulation of voice recordings focused on a bill from Republican Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham. The lawmaker worried that Amazon staffers were listening to some Alexa recordings made in people’s homes. The company says employees only review a tiny fraction of the recordings.
Cunningham has tried unsuccessfully since 2019 to require companies to get consumer consent before storing or sharing smart-speaker recordings. When Cunningham re-introduced the measure this year, Amazon took a novel lobbying approach: It argued the privacy protections would hurt disabled people.
The lawmaker said he first heard that rationale from lobbyist Anthony Williams, a new Amazon hire and former aide to California Governor Gavin Newsom. Cunningham said Williams showed him a promotional video about how Alexa helped blind people with everyday tasks such as checking the weather. Williams didn’t respond to requests for comment.
At an April hearing of the California State Assembly’s privacy committee, a disability rights advocate testified that Cunningham’s bill was “a form of discrimination” against people with disabilities. The advocate, LaMondre Pough, who uses a wheelchair, testified that the bill’s consent requirements would confuse customers and potentially make the devices less functional for people with disabilities.
Pough testified that he represented a disability-rights organization called Billion Strong. What he didn’t say was that his employer, consulting firm Ruh Global Impact, had legally registered the nonprofit just three weeks before, or that the firm was working with Amazon.
Pough is Ruh Global’s chief sustainability officer. Contacted by Reuters in June, Pough said he had never worked with Amazon. Ruh Global CEO Debra Ruh, in a June interview, denied coordinating with or receiving money from Amazon.
Pough did not respond to additional requests for comment. Debra Ruh said last month that her group had concerns with Cunningham’s bill “long before working with Amazon.” She apologized for her earlier, incorrect statement that she had never worked with Amazon, saying she was “caught off guard” by the question. She declined further comment on her work with the company.
Amazon said Ruh Global was already opposed to Cunningham’s smart speaker bill by the time Amazon partnered with the firm. Amazon said the bill’s consumer-consent requirements could “negatively affect the accessibility of these devices for all customers, including those with disabilities.”
Three representatives of leading national disability-rights organizations told Reuters that devices such as Alexa can help people with disabilities live more independently. They said, however, that individuals with disabilities have the same privacy concerns as anyone else and should not be used by corporate lobbyists as a shield against regulation.
Amazon’s Williams had lobbied committee Chair Tom Umberg, according to a person familiar with their discussions. Amazon has donated $9,200 to Umberg’s election campaign since he took office in 2018, campaign-finance records show.
Umberg said he shared Cunningham’s concerns about voice-data privacy and that political donations have no bearing on his decisions about legislation. Amazon said: “Of course we do not tie contributions to votes.”
Umberg acknowledged discussing the bill with Amazon’s Williams and other tech industry representatives, who Umberg said had “strong concerns” about the bill. Umberg said he told Cunningham that committee members had issues with the bill, and that he might have a better chance of passing it in 2022.
Amazon recently has widened its lobbying strategy to focus less on killing or neutering legislation it opposed and more on drafting favorable bills and getting them passed in friendly legislatures, a former public-policy employee said. That tack paid off in a big way this year in Virginia, where Amazon convinced Sen. David Marsden, a business-friendly Democrat, to introduce privacy legislation that the company had drafted.
Marsden confirmed to Reuters that Amazon gave him the draft of the bill. Privacy advocates say the wide-ranging bill was designed to appease the technology industry and offered consumers little protection. Its passage in February 2021, with little opposition, was considered a “huge victory” inside Amazon, said a former public-policy employee.
Amazon did not comment on its drafting of the legislation or its lobbying strategy, but said it had “strong relationships” with Virginia politicians. The company said it supported the Virginia bill because it afforded certainty to businesses while protecting consumer data.
Amazon has increased its Virginia political donations from $27,750 in 2016 to $277,500 last year, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The 2020 total is more than Amazon donated in any other state but California, its corporate disclosures show. The company is now one of the biggest donors to the Virginia legislature’s Democratic and Republican fundraising committees.
Bordering Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, Virginia offers Amazon immense strategic benefits. It was Virginia where Amazon Web Services, which holds lucrative contracts with defense and intelligence agencies, built one of its largest clusters of data centers.
Amazon also located its second headquarters in Virginia, spurning Illinois and others who competed for the jobs. In exchange, the Virginia legislature approved subsidies for Amazon worth up to $750 million. The House of Delegates debated the measure for just 14 minutes before approving it by a lopsided margin. Virginia Delegate Lee Carter, a Democrat who was one of the few to criticize the subsidies, said state leaders want Virginia to be “the next Silicon Valley,” and so they generally let tech firms “do whatever they want.”
Marsden told Reuters he was given the text of the privacy bill by Amazon contract lobbyist Meade Spotts, of the Richmond, Virginia, firm Spotts Fain. Amazon came to him, Marsden said, because he had previously helped to pass another Amazon-drafted bill, which allowed small automated vehicles to ferry packages from delivery trucks to homes.
Marsden said Amazon referred him to what the company called a “neutral resource” on privacy issues: Stacey Gray of the Future of Privacy Forum. Amazon has long funded the Future of Privacy Forum, budgeting $100,000 for the group in 2018, according to a public-policy planning document from the prior year. At one hearing, Marsden called Gray his “phone-a-friend” for any legislator with questions.
Gray said her organization operates independently and that Amazon is only one of its more than 200 donors, a comment echoed by Amazon in its statement. Marsden said Amazon disclosed to him that it financed the nonprofit privacy-research group.
The Virginia law allows technology companies to track consumer searches on their platforms to create marketing profiles. It gave tech companies exemptions to collect and analyze smart-speaker recordings without customer consent. And it prevented consumers from suing companies over privacy violations.
Marsden described the Amazon-drafted bill as a “compromise” between corporate and consumer interests. “We haven’t had any real angst on the consumer side,” he said. “Before this, consumers had nothing. Businesses didn’t know what the rules were, so they did whatever.”
Consumer advocates were never consulted on the bill and only learned of it shortly before it passed, said Leonard Bennett, a Virginia attorney who serves on an advisory board of the National Consumer Law Center. He described the law as “anti-consumer.”
Among the few Virginia legislators opposing the bill was Ibraheem Samirah. He said he received two unsolicited political donations of $1,000 from Amazon, one about five months before the bill was considered, the other about two months after. Someone representing the company contacted Samirah each time to see if he had cashed the checks, which he called an unusual inquiry. He declined to take the money.
In a public hearing on the bill, Samirah tried to raise concerns but was cut off by the committee chair, who sponsored the legislation, a video of the session shows. Amazon, Samirah said, has successfully preempted safeguards for Virginians.