Four Corners: Apr 6

Monday’s Four Corners is a BBC Panorama story, “Amazon: What They Know About Us.”

“They have amassed so much knowledge about us. What we know is a pittance compared to what they can know about us.” Harvard professor

Amazon is a corporate colossus that dominates the global retail landscape. As a company, it has changed the way commerce operates to emerge as a corporate superpower.

“Domination was on Jeff’s mind from the beginning.” Former senior Amazon manager

In a quarter of a century the company has transformed itself from three staff in a garage to nearly 800,000 employees worldwide. It’s propelled its founder, Jeff Bezos from a small-scale book seller to a tech titan. He’s now the richest man in the world.

“Jeff was quite obviously a genius. He had a strategy that was different than everyone else in retail.” Silicon Valley investor

On Monday, former high-level Amazon insiders reveal how the company has achieved its success.

“If I could time travel back now to 1997, 1998 and look back at the sort of infancy of deep-down granular data collection on customers I would now be frightened and a little appalled.” Former senior Amazon manager

What emerges is a portrait of a company that gathers staggering amounts of deeply personal data about its customers.

“People think ‘Hey, I give up a little personal data for a service I really like’. And there was a time when that was what was really going on. But what’s going on now is much more invasive and much more manipulative.” Silicon Valley investor

Amazon is far more than a convenient online marketplace to buy and sell products. Its move into ‘smart’ digital home services like Alexa has opened up disturbing possibilities for surveillance.

“I simply hate the idea of voluntarily putting a bug into my living room and knowing some ‘shmo’ in Seattle might be listening to it on a headset.” Former senior Amazon manager

The company has ambitious plans to provide a wide array of ‘smart’ products ranging from lightbulbs to lawnmowers.

“Amazon is branching out into real life and it is doing this very, very aggressively. It wants to have the entire environment, everything we do from the time we wake up from the time we go to sleep and everywhere we are in between, essentially mic’d.” Harvard professor

The company insists it’s using its technology for good and useful purposes.

“Our job I think is to keep inventing and then make sure we put guardrails around that invention that gives customers tools to not turn it into that dystopian environment, to make it a place we all want to live and to do good. And I’m absolutely sure we can do that.” Amazon VP

With regulators around the world beginning to question Amazon’s immense reach and power, some former insiders say it’s time for the company to take responsibility for the future it is helping to create.

“We as a tech community are being faced with, I think, a really big existential challenge – which is, do we ultimately value the growth of our economic engines more than we value the underlying moral underpinnings of the world around us? So, technology has to be actively involved in these types of moral discussions.” Former Amazon Customer Behaviour Research Team manager

Monday 6th April at 8.30pm on ABC.

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