Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos

Many people know that Jeff Bezos is the richest person in the world and the founder of Amazon. They have seen pictures of him and perhaps heard about his high-profile 2019 divorce. But many are not aware of the darker side of Bezos’ Amazon empire, including business ventures that raise questions about privacy, surveillance and product safety.

A Frontline documentary, “Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos,” released in February 2020, exposes the backstory of the Amazon CEO’s rise to power and the global implications of his rampant ambition and aggressive ventures.

It took Frontline a year to create “Amazon: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos” and it includes many interviews with his top lieutenants, almost all of whom are men. What emerges from people who know Bezos and worked with him is not so much a picture of a power-driven despot as someone with uncanny visions of how people can be engineered and data can be exploited.

Customer Is King and so Is Data

As a Princeton graduate working on Wall Street, Bezos is largely credited with introducing the idea of basing financial analyses on data, an approach that had not been done before. He founded Amazon in 1995 as a seller of books, but even then collection of data was crucial to the business plan.

Right from the start, Bezos “treated the site as a laboratory where he studied customer behavior,” says the film. According to Randy Miller, former director of pricing and product management at Amazon:1

“We could track how a customer navigated through the site. So we could see what you looked at; we could also see what you paused at; we could see what you put in your basket but didn’t order; we could see what you put in your basket and did order.

So that’s when we started realizing, man, this [data collection] is rich, this is rich rich rich. And so we’ve used it for everything.”

Even when it only sold books, Amazon’s ruthless business philosophy of using size to annihilate competitors was seen. Amazon could forego profits to gain market share and monopolize the marketplace, unlike smaller companies that couldn’t afford to lose money. Undercutting competitors enabled Amazon to deal a deathblow to brick and mortar retailers who also had to pay taxes, unlike online Amazon.

Dennis Johnson, CEO of Melville House Books, says he was shocked when Amazon required 4% of profits to sell his books, which he considered a kickback. Miller admits that Amazon played dirty with booksellers.2

“In order to bring them into line, we would actually take them out of automated merchandising, take their prices up to list price. We would put references on the product page, their product page saying, ‘You want this cheaper? You want this book on this topic for a way cheaper price? Click here.’

And we’d send them to whoever we thought their worst competitor was. That was how Amazon forced their vendors to comply. But that’s an old Walmart trick. It wasn’t like Amazon created that.”

New Initiative Solidified Amazon’s Power

Two new initiatives turned Amazon into the force it is today, reshaping the retail marketplace forever. First was its decision to enlarge its offerings beyond books to include almost all merchandise. Sellers and manufacturers could avail themselves of Amazon’s 12 million customers as Amazon became America’s biggest “mall,” reaching more customers than they could hope to on their own.

According to Yahoo Finance, 58% of Amazon sales3 are now from third parties. The second initiative was Bezos’ decision to launch Amazon Prime in 2005, which was “the most successful membership program in history,” according to Scott Galloway, a professor at NYU Stern School of Business.

Amazon Prime, a program in which customers pay a minimal yearly fee and receive free two-day shipping, later upgraded to one-day shipping, again stemming from Amazon’s willingness to undercut competitors even when it meant foregoing immediate profits.

Though Amazon had few warehouses at the time, the bold move, according to James Thomson, formerly a senior manager and business head of Amazon Services4 at Amazon:

“… ‘is one of the most important drivers of Amazon’s growth. When you go on [Amazon] and look to buy a product and it’s available in two days, delivered to your door anywhere in the country, that Amazon Prime program becomes a mechanism that keeps bringing you back as a customer to keep buying and keep searching for new products on Amazon.”

Amazon also launched its own delivery service in 2013, creating a system that “would rival Fed Ex or UPS,” says the documentary. The company made delivery vans small enough to be exempt from federal regulation and also dodged liability. When the vans were involved in accidents, which happened with regularity, Amazon claimed the vans “contractors” and it had no legal responsibility.

The Sale of Defective and Fraudulent Products Grows

With Amazon Prime, the company locked in customer loyalty and undercut competitors. But it also put customers at risk of defective and fraudulent products, according to the documentary. If you buy something harmful or defective at Walmart or Target, you can sue them, but Amazon says it is not legally responsible if customers are hurt by products sold by third parties on the site.

According to Rachel Johnson Greer, a former product safety manager at Amazon, when you create your Amazon account, you accept this indemnification of the company when you assent to the terms and conditions, though it is likely many do not realize this.

There have been reports of Amazon selling hair driers and hoverboards that caught fire, school supplies made with toxic metals, and other unsafe or mislabeled products. These dangers are especially concerning since 77% of all vitamins and supplements sold online are sold by Amazon. Only 2.3% of online vitamin and supplement sales come from brick and mortar retailers.

One example of the many fraudulent and misbranded products that have infiltrated Amazon was a counterfeit probiotics supplement sold last year by Procter & Gamble called Align.5 According to Wired, Procter & Gamble spokesperson Mollie Wheeler said in an email:

“We are aware that some counterfeit Align product was sold on Amazon via third parties … Amazon has confirmed they have stopped third party sales of the Align products in question and Amazon is only selling Align product received directly from P&G manufacturing facilities.'”

Amazon also acknowledged problems with counterfeiters.6

“We investigate every claim of potential counterfeit thoroughly, and often in partnership with brands, and in the rare instance where a bad actor gets through, we take swift action, including removing the item for sale, permanently banning bad actors, pursuing legal action, and working with law enforcement when appropriate.

We have taken these actions against the bad actors in question and proactively notified and refunded customers.”

Anyone who buys from Amazon should be aware that companies selling knock-off products are not regulated under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) as legitimate supplement products are. (As a matter of disclosure, my store, in which I sell supplements along with a number of other products, is an online entity.)

Other Problematical Amazon Enterprises

Over the years, Amazon has moved into enterprises that seriously threaten privacy. By now, many people have heard of Amazon’s Alexa and Echo products, which so many homes unthinkingly install. While they may think of Alexa as an assistant or helpmate, they often do not realize it is a two-way street in which the device listens to and surveils its environments. According to Meredith Whittaker, codirector of the AI Now Institute:

“Alexa is one more way for Amazon to gather extremely valuable data. And this data collection is extremely important to this business model. It’s extremely hard to do, and convincing people to just deploy something like this in their home is a brilliant trick.”

Frontline reporter James Jacoby asked Dave Limp, senior vice president of devices and services at Amazon, how the trick was accomplished. “How is it that you convinced tens of millions of people to put what is essentially a listening device in their homes?” he asks. Limp replies:

“Well, I would first disagree with the premise. It doesn’t — it’s not a listening device. The device in its core is — it has a detector on it — we call it internally a “wake-word engine” — and that detector is listening — not really listening, it’s detecting one thing and one thing only, which is the word you’ve said that you want to get the attention of that Echo.”

Limp however, does admit that the devices could deceive.

“If I could go back in time and I could be more clear … how we were using human beings to annotate a small percentage of the data, I would, for sure. What I would say, though, is that once we realize that customers didn’t clearly understand this, within a couple of days we added an opt-out feature so that customers could turn off annotation if they so chose.

And then within a month or two later we allowed people to auto-delete data, which they also asked for within that time frame. We’re not going to always be perfect, but when we make mistakes, I think the key is that we correct them very quickly on behalf of customers.”

Other Ventures Create Privacy Threats

Another hugely successful Amazon initiative was the cloud computing service, Amazon Web Services, that Bezos built in 2013. The service got a huge boost, says the film, when it was contracted to design a computing cloud for the CIA for $600 million. According to James Bandler, a reporter at ProPublica:

The CIA contract was probably one of the best things that happened to Amazon’s cloud business. It lifted all doubts about the security of the cloud and about whether you could trust Amazon with your most precious data.”

The contract bestowed instant credibility on Amazon, agrees Brad Stone, author of “The Everything Store” about Amazon. In the film he says:

“The message to the world is, if the CIA trusts Amazon with its data, then maybe other companies and government institutions can as well.”

Another controversial Amazon venture is Ring, a doorbell camera app dubbed “the new neighborhood watch” by Amazon. Ring has been exploited by hackers that spied on people in their homes. Amazon also used police officers to promote the product. Says Whittaker:

“You have Amazon in partnership with police departments, who have basically turned policemen into Avon salespeople for Amazon Ring. They have given police departments talking points and marketing materials to encourage the installation of Ring by community residents. None of this was public knowledge.”

A related app, Amazon Rekognition Video, that allows people to track, detect, recognize, extract and moderate faces from video,7 has also been widely embraced by police departments. Jacoby asks Andy Jassy, the CEO of Amazon Web Services, how the public would know if the app is being used on them since there is no public audit. Jassy says:

“I don’t think we know the total number of police departments that are using facial recognition technology. I mean there’s — you can use any number — we have 165 services in our technology infrastructure platform, and you can use them in whatever conjunction, any combination that you want.

We know of some [police departments], and the vast majority … are using it according to the guidance that we’ve prescribed, and when they’re not, we have conversations. And if we find that they’re using it in some irresponsible way we won’t allow them to use the service and the platform.”

How Amazon would disallow use of the app is unclear since there are “few laws governing the use of this technology,” the film notes.

Recent Amazon Ventures

In 2013, Bezos enlarged his empire by buying the struggling Washington Post.8 In 2019, the paper put its sights on me, running an inflammatory hit piece with untruths about my product claims and vaccine stances.

It also looks as though Amazon’s glide path may be faltering. In 2019, the Pentagon chose Microsoft over Amazon for a $10 billion contract9 and Amazon canceled its plans for a New York City corporate campus when lawmakers fiercely objected.10 In 2020, Amazon was slapped with a class action antitrust suit alleging that it has monopolized the online retail marketplace.11

Amazon is also trying to capitalize on the COVID-19 pandemic, reports The Verge.12 It has proposed legislation to indemnify seller hosts, like Amazon, from price gouging conducted by a host’s third-party sellers.

In addition to misbranded products and surveillance of customers, Amazon also has workers who suffer under its reign. By June it will remove a “combat pay” increase it had added to its overstressed warehouse workers’ salaries and compress its delivery times to compete with Shopify, Target and Costco.13

In addition, more than 130 Amazon workers, already likely stressed with pandemic work increases, are believed to have been infected with COVID-19, reports The Verge.14 The documentary includes many testimonials from abused Amazon warehouse workers. Buyers beware.

Is Your Cellphone a Trojan Horse for the Coronavirus?

Bacteria and viruses may gain entry to your body through what is known as a “Trojan Horse.” The term grew from Greek mythology and was first recorded in Homer’s 8th century B.C. epic poem, The Iliad.1 The Trojan horse was a diversion used to sneak an army into the fortified city of Troy.

As the myth is told, the Trojan War was started by the Greek god Zeus to reduce the human population and reclaim Helen. Unable to achieve their goal in a straightforward attack, the Greeks left an enormous wooden horse outside the city as a “present” for the Trojans.

The horse was wheeled into the city. Late at night soldiers emerged from the belly of the horse and opened the city gates for the Greek army, who then soundly defeated the Trojans. Others have used similar methods throughout history. More recently, hackers use Trojan horse software to inflict damage on your computer or data.2

Is Your Cellphone a Trojan Horse?

Researchers believe their recent review of the literature “exposes the possible role of mobile phones as a ‘Trojan horse’ contributing to the transmission of microbial infections in epidemics and pandemics.”3

Mobile devices have become ubiquitous in society. People take them from the kitchen to the bedroom and bathroom. They are a potential breeding ground for bacteria, fungi and viruses, which the researchers wrote may “constitute a potential global public health risk for microbial transmission.”

Prompted by the current pandemic, they evaluated data from 56 articles from 24 countries. The study was led by Lotti Tajouri from Bond University in Australia. They noted that golden staph and E. coli were some of the more common pathogens found on cell phones. Tajouri called mobile devices “five-star hotels with premium heated spas, free buffet for microbes to thrive on.”4

Bacteria and viruses do well on cellphones since the devices are temperature controlled, frequently in people’s hands and next to their faces. As detailed in a press release,5 Tajouri said super users may handle their devices up to 5,000 times every day and cautioned individuals to think of their phone as a third hand:

“We know from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that 80 per cent of all infections are associated with our hands. You can wash your hands as many times as you like — and you should — but if you then touch a contaminated phone you are contaminating yourself all over again.”

He cautions people to clean their phones at least once a day. While more information is needed to determine the role contaminated cell phones may play in spreading contagious diseases, Tajouri points out they are with us everywhere and cleaning may make a difference in slowing the spread of viruses.

More Bacteria Than a Toilet Seat

Results from several studies have demonstrated that cell phones carried by health care workers are significantly contaminated with pathogens. In one of them involving 386 participants, some of the most predominant pathogens were Staphylococcus, Acinetobacter, E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae.6

The researchers found health care workers’ phones were 100% contaminated and could be a potential source of hospital-acquired infections. In a separate study comparing the cell phones of health care workers and non-health care workers, Iranian researchers found the predominant organism from those working in surgery was methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA).7

Among those in the ICU, they found Acinetobacter was followed closely by MRSA. In non-health care workers’ mobile phones, 46% grew six different types of bacteria.

In a different study in 2016, however, S. epidermidis was the most predominant bacterium found on 84% of 100 cellphones examined, with S. aureus coming in at 54%.8 In hospitals, these infections have become so prevalent that operating room managers began looking at cellphones as possible contaminants causing infections in patients as early as 2007.9

In a later analysis10 looking directly at how infections occur in prosthetic joint replacements in the operating room, researchers said:

“These microorganisms can all be part of normal skin flora; hence, direct inoculation at the time of the operation as well as airborne contamination are the most likely causes of these infections.”

In other settings, researchers from Germany were interested in evaluating the touch screens on smartphones of individuals outside of health care.11 They randomly chose 60 students and found most identified bacteria were typically found on human skin, mouth, lungs and intestinal tract.

Five of the 10 identified bacteria were opportunistic pathogens. Other scientists found a significant association related to the number of bacteria, the age of the phone and the sharing of phones among individuals.12

The number of times you check your phone throughout the day, as well as how often you use them during activities when you would normally wash your hands, increases the risk these small devices are carrying more pathogenic bacteria and viruses than you might imagine.

Adding to this, they are frequently pressed up against your face and may be transferring bacteria to your hands, which you subsequently may use to scratch your eye or touch your mouth. A study in 2012 from the University of Arizona made headlines when they found cell phones may carry “10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats.”13

Clean Your Phone Without Damaging It

More specific to the current COVID-19 pandemic, a recent analysis of 22 studies evaluated the persistence of coronaviruses on inanimate surfaces. Published in the Journal of Hospital Infection, the data included SARS-CoV-1 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).14

Researchers found the viruses can persist on metal, glass or plastic for up to nine days. Cleaning surfaces with 62% to 71% ethanol or 0.5% hydrogen peroxide could disinfect within one minute. However, while alcohol and hydrogen peroxide kill pathogens, they are not friendly to your cell phone.15

The amount of damage will vary depending on the device. At the start of the pandemic, Apple changed their cleaning recommendation to 70% isopropyl alcohol to clean nonporous surfaces. Just remember, it’s important to keep moisture away from any of the openings on the device and avoid using bleach of any kind, as this can permanently damage your phone.

A second option is to purchase a screen protector for the touchpad and display. Glass screen protectors can be safely cleaned with isopropyl alcohol. They can be a challenge to install but have the additional benefit of helping to reduce scratches, cracks and other damage.

Phone sanitizers that use UVC light to break down pathogens may also be purchased to clean your phone.16 As Tajouri points out, no matter how clean your hands are, once you touch the screen of your phone you have contaminated your hands once again.

To reduce the number of pathogens that reach your face, nose and mouth, consider using a headset with a microphone to make phone calls. You should also clean your phone on a daily basis, wash your hands frequently for 20 seconds each time and keep your hands away from your face.

Use Linked to Increased Risk of Mitochondrial Damage

Cellphones, and in particular smartphones, have become so commonplace that apps are being developed to track and trace people with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and to send communications to people and issue quarantine guidelines.17 Most agree there is an issue with your data no longer being private.

While developers are trying to put mechanisms in place to address the question of privacy, apps are being downloaded by millions around the world. Fitness trackers are being designed to monitor your symptoms and artificial intelligence applications are underway to diagnose if you’re sick based on your voice or your cough.18

Politicians, scientists and vaccine-driven magnates are pushing to use mobile devices, to which many have become addicted, to reach their own end goals. Data show that even when you don’t have the phone in your hand, it may have a distracting influence on your performance of complex tasks.19,20

This may be the result of what programmers want to achieve in a process they call “brain hacking.”21 Essentially, programs are designed to capture your attention and draw you back for more interaction. Across several digital platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and games, this may have led to a growing number of users who are addicted to their smartphones.22

Your Phone Is Unlikely to Spread COVID-19

Although you may be able to culture different bacteria, viruses and fungi from the surface of your phone — thus emphasizing the importance of cleaning your cellphone — the CDC is clear:23 “COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly through close contact from person-to-person.” They recommend avoiding close contact with people since the virus likely is spread in respiratory droplets from people who are infected. These droplets are produced when a person sneezes, coughs or speaks.

While scientists have noted the virus appears to spread easily between people, it does not spread quickly in other ways, such as after touching an object such as a cellphone. The CDC recommends the best ways to prevent the illness are to avoid exposure by washing your hands and keeping approximately 6 feet between people.

Because scientists are still learning about the virus — even though the potential for spread from contaminated objects is low — the CDC also recommends routinely cleaning and disinfecting objects that are frequently touched and used.

Much of the concern surrounding getting infected from surfaces stem from a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine.24 Researchers were able to find the virus on some surfaces for up to three days. However, it wasn’t clear that people could get infected from the virus found on inanimate objects.

The CDC recommendations correlate with epidemiological data and surface testing. Leading German scientist Hendrik Streeck is an infectious disease specialist at the University Hospital in Bonnhas. He spoke with a reporter from the Daily Mail25 about his findings after sampling the home of one family with multiple SARS-CoV-2 infections.

He could not find “any live virus on any surface,” which raises more questions about the virus. He said the virus was not found on frequently used objects, such as doorknobs, or on animal fur. “We know it’s not a smear infection that is transmitted by touching objects, but that close dancing and exuberant celebrations have led to infections,” Streeck said.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Amesh Adalja from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security spoke with a reporter from Yahoo Life, saying:26

“Based on the epidemiology, we know that the main way this virus is infecting people is from direct contact with other infected people. Contaminated surfaces play some role, but it’s likely much smaller. This is a respiratory virus, and respiratory viruses largely spread through breathing in infected respiratory droplets.”