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Amazon has gotten flak for how it handles user and partner data, but that hasn’t stopped it from launching a program that openly pays to stalk opt-in participants’ smartphone traffic. The ad-verification scheme is similar to demised programs from other tech giants, like Google, and gives Amazon access to members’ phone data to learn about how they interact with advertisements.

As reported by Insider on Monday, Amazon is now offering payment for ad verification to members of the Amazon Shopper Panel, an invite-only reward program available to US and UK Amazon customers.

As per an image shared on the Shopper Panel’s website, users can opt in to ad verification, which lets Amazon “confirm which ads from Amazon they saw on their device. This can include Amazon’s own advertising or ads from third-party businesses that advertise through Amazon ads.”

Just a quick toggle permits Amazon to snoop on your phone.

Just a quick toggle permits Amazon to snoop on your phone.

Those who opt in give the Amazon Shopper Panel App Store and Play Store apps permission to “collect and use information” about the websites and time of day where you view ads on your smartphone.

“Your participation will help brands offer better products and make ads from Amazon more relevant,” Amazon’s Shopper Panel page says.

Amazon’s broader Shopper Panel program lets invited participants acquire monthly rewards by sending Amazon pictures of recent receipts and taking surveys. The program is only available to a “limited number of Amazon customers,” but if you’re not invited, you can join a waitlist.

Little money, considerable risks

Amazon’s ad verification program sees the company being somewhat open about prying into members’ phones and even offering compensation. But if $2 doesn’t sound like a lot of money (it isn’t), it sounds like real chump change considering the general privacy risks associated with basically handing over one of your most-, if not your top-, used personal devices to any company, let alone one like Amazon.

According to Amazon’s Shopper Panel FAQ, participants can “withdraw consent and delete your personal information that is associated with the Amazon Shopper Panel,” including ad verification information, at any time. And Amazon claims it won’t share personal information acquired through the Shopper Panel with anyone else.

Questions about the program’s privacy constructs by Insider were forwarded to Amazon’s privacy notice. It says it may use your personal information for things like “interest-based ads” and recommending features. Additionally, the privacy notice claims Amazon only shares personal information with a third party when a business transaction calls for it or to comply with the law.

Amazon, like many tech giants, doesn’t have the cleanest reputation when it comes to keeping people abreast of what happens to the data Amazon has amassed on them. As a quick recent example, this summer, it came out that Amazon’s home security company, Ring, has given user data to the police without consent. And this spring, the House Judiciary Committee concluded that Amazon lied to Congress about how it uses third-party seller data (Amazon purportedly uses the data to manipulate competitive advantages).

Yet, Amazon maintains a relentless push for data, with some gaining concern, as noted by Insider, about future endeavors, including a deal to acquire home-mapping robot vacuum-maker iRobot and repeated interest in health care.

Sound familiar?

If the past is any indicator, Amazon’s paid-for smartphone surveillance program may face resistance.

Google tried a similar tactic in 2012. The Google Screenwise program gave members Amazon gift cards in exchange for letting a browser extension or even a piece of hardware monitor their home network traffic.

And in 2016, Facebook launched a program that gave 13- to 25-year-olds gift cards in exchange for downloading an ever-watchful VPN app.

Both programs eventually raised privacy concerns, while their apps raised eyebrows for getting around Apple’s App Store rules. Both were dead by 2020.

With prior opt-in surveillance programs reaching such terminations, Amazon’s new ad-verification program will likely face similar scrutiny.

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