Amazon Fire news

Why you shouldn't buy the Amazon Fire phone

The Fire is optimized for spying on you. So where's Amazon's transparency?

Amazon launched a new smartphone this week. It's called the Amazon Fire phone, and it sports some unique hardware, software and services.

Amazon's Fire phone with Firefly
With the Firefly technology, the Amazon's Fire phone can collect your data from the phone's camera or microphone. (Photo: Amazon)

The public has zeroed in on some of the "wow!" features, including a 3D-like interface and the ability to recognize everything from famous works of art to TV shows to random products.

The pundits have detailed the utility of these very features to Amazon for the purpose of "showrooming" -- encountering media and products in the real world, using the Fire phone's sensors to recognize them, then using the convenient "buy" button to get those products from Amazon.

I'm here to detail a third dimension, if you will, to the Amazon Fire phone -- it's the most effective device ever sold for harvesting the personal data from its owner. Let's break this down.


Firefly recognizes things. It uses either the phone's camera or microphone to collect your data, which is then uploaded to a remote server, processed, and the results returned to you.

Firefly is presented as a single feature. In fact, it's a well-packaged collection of software and services that exist elsewhere on other platforms in a scattershot, disjointed form. It works like a combination of the Google Goggles app, which can recognize products via the camera, plus Google Now, which can recognize songs and TV shows via a phone's microphone.

One difference is that the Fire phone has a dedicated Firefly button which, when pressed, activates both camera and microphone to recognize whatever it can. Another is that if that object or content is available on Amazon, the phone will facilitate your purchase of it.

You can point the Fire phone's camera at a book you see in a bookstore window, press the Firefly button, and in a few seconds that book will likely be displayed on your screen with a "buy" button. Firefly can recognize movie posters, games and even songs and TV shows, which it determines by processing the sound coming in to the Fire phone's microphone.

It's not just about commerce. Firefly can recognize phone numbers for one-tap dialing, works of art and even QR codes.

The database can recognize 100 million objects, according to Amazon.

Here's a shocking fact about Firefly: When the Firefly button is pressed, a picture and audio clip plus GPS coordinates are all uploaded to Amazon's servers every time. Amazon retains the data on their servers.

If you want it to recognize a song, it still uploads a picture. If you want to recognize a product, it still uploads an audio clip. What is promoted as a user benefit (one-button for recognizing anything) is in fact the opening of a window to let Amazon into your life (which users have already granted permission for).

Take a picture of a book, a novel for instance, and you also upload audio. Let's say the audio frequently picks up TV cooking shows that you might be watching in the background. Amazon could start serving you ads for cooking products, even though you never explicitly used the Fire phone for a purpose related to cooking or cooking products.

Use Firefly at home -- Amazon can compare the GPS data with the shipping address they have on file -- and they can determine by the times of day that you're likely to either work from home or you don't work.

The GPS can tell them whether you're at Target or at Tiffany's.

It's not hard to see how this data could help Amazon know you better, and in fact construct a highly accurate and detailed profile about you and your life, your family, your activities and your interests.

Firefly takes data harvesting to a whole new, unprecedented level. It can harvest user data totally unrelated to the feature you think you're using.

Note that Amazon does allow you to manually delete any image or sound recording uploaded through Firefly.

Dynamic perspective

The Amazon Fire phone's dynamic perspective feature is a 3D-like illusion that makes it appear that objects on the screen have depth. Amazon achieves this illusion by knowing where your eyes and head are, then showing you what you would see if the objects were 3D.

The unique hardware that enables this illusion is four low-power cameras and four LEDs. It works even when the user is covering two of the cameras.

The technology behind dynamic perspective is pretty amazing. But for the purposes of this column, suffice it to say that the phone knows when your face is looking at the screen and framed within the front-facing camera's range.

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