It is hard to function in the world without an Amazon.com account. From books to streaming video to padlocks to coffee pots to sneakers to…whatever your heart desires, you can probably find it on Amazon. And all with blazing fast delivery and single, friendly, trusted interface. I use Amazon more than I’d like to admit, but doing so privately requires some planning. This post will discuss how to use Amazon and maintain at least a modicum of privacy.
This article was originally posted on September 16, 2016. Very little has changed since I originally wrote this article, except my understanding of the extent of Amazon’s intrusion into our lives.
Using Amazon Anonymously
Amazon knows a lot about you. They know the books you like to read, the movies and TV shows you watch, and the stuff you buy. They know the stuff you’re interested in for a potential future purchase. Even if you haven’t added an item to your wish list, they can probably accurately predict what you will be interested in in the future. They know how much you read on your Kindle, and how fast and how far into each book you read.
Based on the peripherals you buy, they know what phone, computer, printer, and other electronics you own. If your hobbies require very specialized equipment (competition holsters, fly-tying gear, or knitting needles, for instance) Amazon probably knows what you do in your spare time. All of this is bad enough but compounding the problem, Amazon can also correlate all of this information with some other critical data points: your name, home address, telephone number, email address, credit information, and IP address.
Amazon knows a lot more than this, and a lot more than I mentioned in the original version of this article. If you use Amazon Pay, Amazon knows what you purchase on some other websites.In the past couple of years Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant has gained much more widespread acceptance. Alexa gives Amazon an ear into your home. The Amazon Key allows delivery persons to deliver packages into your home, by permitting Amazon to unlock your door.
Amazon now owns the Ring doorbell/camera system, which I wrote about recently. The Ring system of cameras includes facial recognition. Though the purpose of facial recognition integration into Ring is to identify “suspicious” persons, it will doubtlessly also capture thousands of photos of their owners. It would be silly to assume that these images won’t be added to Amazon’s “Rekognition“ [sic] database, as well.
If you buy fully into the Amazon connected home concept, Amazon knows what you’re into, what you look like, what you sound like and what is said in your home, and can unlock the very doors to your home. I would recommend being very, very careful in your use of Amazon.
Using Amazon Securely
Before we discuss anonymity, it is important to discuss account security. Regardless of whether you choose to use Amazon anonymously or not, your account should be as secure as possible. Anyone gaining access to your account will have access to much of the information listed above. The following are my guidelines for protecting these accounts from breach:
- Username: Your username should be your first line of defense. Your Amazon account username must be an email address. I use a different Blur address for each account. If you decide that you are sticking with the same Amazon account, Amazon will allow you to change your username.
- Passwords: Amazon allows you to use passwords as long as 100 characters (the maximum length I have tested). If you are using a password manager, there is no reason to use anything under fifty characters.
- Two-factor authentication: Amazon only recently implemented two-factor authentication and you definitely should use it. Fortunately, Amazon allows you to use a two-factor authenticator app like Authy without first requiring a telephone number. This is a very good thing. Two-factor authentication is only as secure as its backup. By allowing you to use an authenticator app without a phone number, Amazon has allowed you to avoid using a backup option that might be used to circumvent the security of the app.
- Wish lists: If your wish lists are public, you should make them private. Though you are using an obscured username, your wish lists can reveal huge amounts of information about you.
These security measures are designed to protect you from everyone I except Amazon. The measures discussed in the remainder of the article are intended to protect you from Amazon itself.
Using Amazon Anonymously
The first step in using Amazon anonymously is to stop using your old account. If you have had it for even a year or two, it “knows” too much about you. This might be the show-stopper for many. Most importantly, you will lose digital content like movies, TV shows, audio- and e-books. However, it is a very necessary step. If you choose not to go all-in and keep your old account, I recommend you secure it as outlined above, and change the username to something obscure. Closing an Amazon account is not easy, but instructions can be found here. It requires contacting customer service and asking that your account be closed.
The next step in the process is to create a new Amazon account. There are several considerations here. First, use a new email address and phone number for this account. If you re-use old elements of information Amazon will quickly be able to correlate your new account with your old one. There are a number of tools you can use for this. The Blur service will provide “masked emails” with a free account, or you could setup a basic Protonmail account. A paid Blur account will provide a masked phone number, or you could use a VoIP service like Sudo. Further you should probably set this account up while using a virtual private network, which will mask your IP address.
Funding Your New Account
Funding the account privately is imperative. If you sign up for an account with a false name and address, but use your old credit card your privacy is already long gone. There are several ways in which you can fund an anonymous Amazon.com account.
- Gift cards: I feel that this avenue is the most anonymous. You can purchase Amazon.com gift cards in denominations up to $500 with no additional fees. Once you add the gift cards to your account, purchases will be automatically deducted from the balance until is expired. Prepaid credit cards also fall into this category, but I find them somewhat more difficult to work with, and they cost an additional $5 or so. And while a small remaining balance on a gift card can be rolled into your next purchase, the same is not true for prepaid credit cards.
- Privacy.com: Masking services like these are a next-best option. Blur and Privacy.com draw from your credit or bank accounts (respectively) and mask the source of funds. Though purchases could theoretically still be linked to your bank account, doing so would require a sophisticated actor.
Don’t Get Too Attached…
If and when you move, be prepared to repeat this process. I would start a brand new Amazon.com account at your new address. If the old one goes with you, you will create linkage from the old address to the new one.
If you wish to go further than this, you can compartment your accounts. Running separate accounts for your digital content (streaming movies and TV shows), your physical goods, and your audio-books is not a bad idea. Though this technique takes a lot of work, it drastically limits the amount of information that any one account “knows” about you.
Amazon.com offers an amazing service. Using Amazon privately is possible. It is also a good idea because it helps protect your home address, and helps keep you out of other databases.