2018 hasn’t been a great year for Amazon’s public relations, with incident after incident casting the company in a negative light. Here were some of the highlights.
Awful Warehouse Working Conditions Revealed in Undercover Investigation
Amazon’s warehouse working conditions were revealed in an undercover investigation this year, which reported employees urinating in bottles and trashcans for fear of taking a bathroom break, and employees falling asleep on the job due to exhaustion.
It was also revealed that ten percent of Amazon employees in Ohio were on food stamps, and Amazon’s image wasn’t helped following the leak of an internal company video which instructed managers how to spot and intimidate employees with sympathy for unionization.
A New York labor union described Amazon’s working conditions as “deadly and dehumanizing,” and accused it of being “anti-worker” and working towards “world market domination,” while employees in Europe even organized a Black Friday strike over working conditions.
The negative press received from reports of bad working conditions led to Amazon paying employees to say nice things about the company on Twitter, which was described by Twitter users as “creepy” and “Orwellian.”
Major Amazon Alexa Privacy Violations, Errors, and Vulnerabilities
One Amazon “error” this year granted a man access to another Amazon Alexa user’s 1,700 voice recordings.
Furthermore, the user reportedly “initially got no reply when he told Amazon about the access to the other recordings,” and was able to download the entirety of the recordings before Amazon fixed the error.
In another embarrassing error, an Amazon home assistant device secretly recorded a family’s conversation before sending it to a stranger, who then told the family.
“My husband and I would joke and say, ‘I’d bet these devices are listening to what we’re saying,’” declared the mother of the family affected by the error. “We unplugged all of them and he proceeded to tell us that he had received audio files of recordings from inside our house. At first, my husband was, like, ‘no you didn’t!’ And the (recipient of the message) said ‘You sat there talking about hardwood floors.’ And we said, ‘oh gosh, you really did hear us.’”
A 2018 report also claimed Amazon’s home assistants were vulnerable to hijacking, while some owners claimed to be afraid of their devices, with one woman reporting how her Amazon Echo device told her it was going to be okay after it heard her crying.
HQ2 Tax Incentive Controversy
Amazon faced heavy criticism in November after it was announced that the company’s new headquarters would be based in New York City and Arlington, Virginia, after a lengthy location search.
Not only was Amazon criticized for leading on smaller cities, towns, and counties, which offered Amazon a variety of incentives, only for the company to choose two of the richest locations in the United States, but Amazon also faced criticism over the billions of dollars in financial incentives given to it by New York and Arlington in exchange for the headquarters.
Breitbart News Senior Tech Reporter Allum Bokhari described Amazon’s decision to choose New York City and Arlington, Virginia, as “sadistic.”
“Amazon has finally picked the new locations of its east-coast headquarters, and they’re pretty obvious choices: New York City and the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. But that wasn’t before the tech giant sadistically made virtually every other metropolitan area beg for its patronage,” Bokhari declared. “It’s no surprise that Amazon chose to locate its new headquarters in NYC and DC, the twin hubs of finance, media, and political power in America. But before the company made its eminently predictable decision, other cities still felt compelled to kiss Jeff Bezos’ ring, in the vain hope of attracting the same tech giant whose rise has gutted their local main streets.”
“Some of the behavior by city governments was pretty humiliating. Kansas City mayor Sly James personally bought and reviewed 1,000 Amazon products (all 5-star reviews, of course), in an effort to persuade the company to set up shop in his city,” he continued. “And in Georgia, the town of Stonecrest offered to rename itself ‘Amazon, Georgia’ if the tech giant picked them.”
As part of the company’s deal with Arlington, Virginia, the state also offered to give Amazon two days notice of any Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed against it “to allow the Company to seek a protective order or other appropriate remedy.”
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo didn’t help to quell the outrage after he described the $1.5 billion in tax credits and $1.2 billion in tax breaks given to Amazon as “nothing.”
The Amazon deal was criticized by both Republican and Democrat figures, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT).
Secret User Data-Sharing Partnership With Facebook
In December, the New York Times revealed Facebook had a number of a secret user data-sharing partnerships with companies including Amazon, Spotify, Netflix, Yahoo, and Microsoft.
According to the Times, “The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier.”
Gizmodo reported that the data-sharing partnership could have been used to enforce Amazon’s rules with more detail, with the site gaining access to the information of Facebook users.
A.I. Discrimination Against Women
In October, it was revealed that Amazon had shut down its AI-powered recruitment tool after it discriminated against female candidates.
“That is because Amazon’s computer models were trained to vet applicants by observing patterns in resumes submitted to the company over a 10-year period. Most came from men, a reflection of male dominance across the tech industry,” Reuters explained. “In effect, Amazon’s system taught itself that male candidates were preferable. It penalized resumes that included the word ‘women’s,’ as in ‘women’s chess club captain.’ And it downgraded graduates of two all-women’s colleges, according to people familiar with the matter.”
Accusations of “Unlawful Scheme” to Steal eBay Merchants
In October, eBay accused Amazon of conducting an “unlawful scheme” to steal its merchants by messaging them on the platform and convincing them to switch.
The alleged scheme resulted in eBay sending a cease-and-desist letter to Amazon, and demanding “that Amazon end its unlawful activity” if it were to avoid further legal action.
Several creepy patents which Amazon had filed came to light in 2018, including a patent which would track employee movements with wristband tracking devices, and a patent which would place employees in “cages.”
The wristbands would be able to “pinpoint the location of warehouse employees and track their hand movements in real time,” with managers able to monitor their performance, according to the Verge, while the other patent idea would place employees in a “cage-like enclosure around a small work space sitting atop the kind of robotic trolleys that now drive racks of shelves around Amazon warehouses,” according to the Boston Herald.
Amazon Imported More Foreign Workers Than Google and Facebook Combined
Amazon imported more foreign workers than Google and Facebook combined, according to a report, which claimed the company “requested to import 2,515 foreign H-1B workers in 2017, more than the 720 foreign workers that Facebook asked for and the 1,213 foreign workers Google has attempted to bring to the U.S.”
Amazon Robot Hospitalizes Human Employees in Warehouse Accident
At a time when the reputation of Amazon’s warehouse working conditions were already low, an accident this month led to the hospitalization of 24 Amazon warehouse employees, after a robot damaged a can of bear spray.
The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, in response, accused Amazon of repeatedly “putting hard working people’s lives at risk.”
Dodgy Amazon Facial Recognition
Amazon’s facial recognition tool, Rekognition, ran into a number of mishaps this year.
The tool mistakenly identified criminals on the FBI’s Most Wanted List as famous celebrities, and even misidentified 28 members of Congress as police suspects.
Rekognition was criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which claimed the tool “shouldn’t be used until the harms are fully considered and all necessary steps are taken to prevent them from harming vulnerable communities.”