John Burnett: Why Amazon Alexa's political donations plan is a slippery -- and risky -- slope

Amazon recently announced an Alexa feature that will allow individuals to donate to a political campaign through the company’s smart-speaker devices, and at first glance, it might seem like a way to encourage voter engagement. But the devil is in the details, and to date, those details are few and far between.

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“With Alexa Political Contributions you can donate to participating 2020 U.S. presidential campaigns by simply saying “Alexa, I want to make a political contribution” or “Alexa, donate [amount] to [candidate name]”. Amazon Pay will process the donation using the information and default payment method stored in your Amazon account and will email you a receipt for your records,” the company wrote on its website to announce the program.

"To donate to a political campaign using Alexa you must be at least 18 years old and a U.S. citizen or lawfully admitted permanent resident (i.e., green card holder); you must not be a federal government contractor; your contribution must be made in your own name and from your own funds, and funds must not be provided to you by another person or entity for the purpose of making the contribution; and you must make the contribution with your own personal payment method and not with a corporate or business payment instrument or a payment instrument issued to another person," the company wrote.

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The risks

It remains unclear what, exactly, Amazon will do with all the data, how it plans to protect it from being hacked or compromised, and whether it will be possible for foreign adversaries to make fake Amazon accounts to tip the scales in favor of their preferred candidate.

Until Amazon provides clear answers to these questions, all presidential candidates for 2020 should take a principled stance against accepting donations made through Amazon’s Alexa-powered devices.

There’s no question that lowering the barrier for voters to contribute to the candidate or candidates of their choice is a good thing. And on the surface, it might seem like this is what Amazon is doing by enabling those with Alexa devices to donate by simply saying the word.

They can just shout to Alexa, who’s always listening and waiting to be told what to do, and the money is automatically taken from an individual’s bank account or credit card and sent to the desired campaign.

But consider the fact that Amazon, which has faced scrutiny over its privacy protections, will know not only its customers’ favorite brand of toothpaste but also their favorite presidential candidates.

The information that can be derived from Alexa-enabled political donations goes beyond just which candidates are bringing in more donor money. By knowing when a customer makes a donation, Amazon can potentially cross-reference that to news events or statements made in debates. In other words, Amazon will be able to learn what motivates customers to donate and what issues those customers care about.

How can we know that Amazon isn’t going to sell that sensitive and highly valuable information to the highest bidder, or trade it for more user data from another unscrupulous Big Tech platform?

Many Facebook users thought the information they put on the platform was only being used for targeting ads until news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. Actual political donation data could be even more dangerous in the hands of bad actors.

And how can we know that Amazon – which spent more than $14 million on lobbying and over $13 million in political contributions in 2018 – won’t use all of that political spending data to shape its own political spending strategy the way the company uses sales data to shape its marketing and product development?

A Prime account only costs $12.99 a month, a pittance to a nation intent on meddling in our elections.

- -John Burnett, managing director and founder of consulting firm 1 Empire Group

Even without a team of government-backed hackers on their side, foreign parties may be able to manipulate this new Alexa feature through basic steps to mask their location and true identity, creating multiple – even thousands – of Amazon accounts for the purposes of donating to a candidate and influencing elections. A Prime account only costs $12.99 a month, a pittance to a nation intent on meddling in our elections.

At a time when our country is grappling with ways to protect the integrity of our electoral process from foreign interference, it is critical that we think long and hard about how Amazon-enabled political donations could open up a Pandora’s box of meddling.

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Put simply, the danger of voters’ political contributions data falling into the hands of Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, or just malicious actors within the United States should alarm everyone. Candidates should stand up for privacy and democracy and refuse to accept contributions made through Amazon.

John Burnett is the managing director and founder of 1 Empire Group, a consulting firm specializing in business analytics and development, operations, process re-engineering, growth strategies, risk management and public affairs. 

Disclosure: I hold a long position in Amazon and I do not have plans to initiate any positions or transactions in Amazon in the near future. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for the article. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.