Alexa leaks your private wishlists

by @edent | , , , | 8 comments | Read ~3,977 times.

This morning, my wife noticed that Alexa was insistently flashing its little blue lights.

"Alexa... Notifications?"

"You have one notification. An item on your wishlist has dropped in price. The is now only £…"

And that's how my wife found out what I planned to get her for her birthday!

What happened to cause this? I maintain several Amazon Wishlists® of things I want to buy. One of those is for presents I might want to buy my wife - and it is set to private. If you want to buy me a present, you can view my public wishlist. But my private ones are private to me.

A list of Wishlists. Liz's presents is marked as private.

If you go to edit your wishlist's privacy settings, you'll see this small disclaimer:

People who access your list will see your recipient name. If you have an Alexa-enabled device, Alexa may alert you when there is a deal for items in your list. Notification Preferences.

Going over to https://www.amazon.co.uk/alexashopping/notification there's this toggle switch.

 Recommendations and deals  Receive personalised recommendations and deals based on your shopping activity.

So, there's no way to switch off notifications from private lists. You have to switch them off for everything.

In this case, the harm was minimal. I'll have to find something else as a surprise gift. But imagine if I had a "private" wishlist for something embarrassing or upsetting? I don't remember ever switching on the option for my Alexa to announce to my entire household that there is a price-drop on my weird fetish.

I've written before about anti-social app design. The tech bros working on apps often don't consider that people have families. And that they live with people that they want to keep secrets from.

According to the UK's Office of National Statistics - only 28% of households contain a single occupant. The majority of people live with other people.

What to do next

If you use private wishlists, and have an Alexa, you have a few of options.

  1. Stop using Amazon's wishlists, and keep a separate list elsewhere.
  2. Turn off all price drop notifications.
  3. Write a ranty blog post and hope a product manage at Amazon takes notice.

Pre-empting Your Comments

Before responding to this post, please consider the following:

"Why didn't you read the disclaimer?"

I set up this wishlist long before the Alexa was invented. The disclaimer didn't exist then.

"You should have gone through every single option and made sure you were happy!"

That's unrealistic. Options should be set to preserve privacy by default. Asking the user to go through dozens of different pages of options to prevent their privacy being violated is an unreasonable burden.

"This is your fault for being tied in to Amazon's ecosystem!"

Possibly.

jEfF BeZoS Is aLwAyS LiStEnInG To yOu!!1!!!!111!

As long as he gives me cheap same-day delivery, IDGAF.

8 thoughts on “Alexa leaks your private wishlists

  1. What is it about these companies that they don’t understand that more than one person can live in the same place?


  2. Dev says:

    I worked on Alexa in the past. It's an organization within Amazon with very diverse leadership and contributors, not the "tech bros" you would assume.

    Aside from that, this is obviously undesirable behavior. That said, nobody at Amazon would specify this behavior explicitly - it's a bug and a missed use case. I suspect that your post hitting hn might find the eyes of Alexa teams, which could result in it being added to a roadmap and fixed in some number of months.

    Regards, Dev.

  3. jon says:

    it isn't a disclaimer, it's the UI telling you how things work
    it's shit design
    it's not "anti-social". it's typical shit design from modern software. they never think ANYTHING through. not just whatever tech bros know or not know

  4. Oh that’s not all it leaks. It’ll leak your reading interests too. A couple of weeks or so ago it just casually notified to let me know about some new gay werewolf smut.



  5. “Alexa. What is the meaning of private?”

  6. Roger Bamkin says:

    good rant

  7. David Low says:

    It did always baffle me at Amazon that they would work for years trying to make the devices multi-user, but base some of the primary marketing / nudge behaviours around a single owner.


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