Amazon Is Analyzing the Personal Relationships of Its Reviewers

This is an interesting story of a reviewer who had her review deleted because Amazon believed she knew the author personally.

Leaving completely aside the ethics of friends reviewing friends' books, what is Amazon doing conducting this kind of investigative surveillance? Do reviewers know that Amazon is keeping tabs on who their friends are?

Posted on July 8, 2015 at 6:36 AM • 57 Comments

Comments

VslJuly 8, 2015 7:21 AM

"Leaving completely aside" the very reason Amazon does this - preventing unethical reviews that aren't useful for its customers - doesn't seem useful for any meaningful discussion.

SKJuly 8, 2015 7:29 AM

Just look at the infosec books on Amazon, anyone who knows the big names in our community sees everyone reviewing their friends' books over and over and over...you get the point. Do you have a better idea to increase the integrity of reviews, or just let this happen? Sure, everyone is entitled to an opinion - but when friends keep reviewing each other's books and giving them 5 stars over and over...

gordoJuly 8, 2015 7:37 AM

Sounds like Amazon wanted from the reviewer some admission in the rejected review that they had previous dealings with the author, however minimal they might have been.

What's the threshold?

"Full disclosure: I once sent author X a nice note about their book, Y, and how I admired their work in general. X responded to me with a kind 'Thank you!'" Now, on with my review...

I hope it's not that trivial.

wsvJuly 8, 2015 7:47 AM

@Vsl, the fact that Amazon has a legitimate purpose does not avoid the question of whether or how they are effectively spying on people's personal lives.

SK to Schneier: "Do you have a better idea to increase the integrity of reviews...?" Well, *I* do, how about disclosure? Any such relationship should be acknowledged, so the readers of reviews can weigh accordingly. It's only undisclosed relationships that cause a problem. Of course, this may not be Amazon's view.

To the main question: It does not seem that the records of purchases would be sufficient to detect relationships. Amazon could be correlating with Facebook, Twitter or other web-available data, or buying some feed from one of those personal-data aggregation companies, or just having employees guess based on review contents.

MailmanJuly 8, 2015 7:52 AM

Amazon's "wish list" service is the best indicator of the company having an interest in knowing who you talk to.

JimFIveJuly 8, 2015 8:19 AM

@wsv
Requiring disclosure is futile without an enforcement mechanism which leaves Amazon in the same place they are now--doing "investigative surveillance" to track relationships between reviewers and authors.
--
JimFive

StiennonJuly 8, 2015 8:20 AM

I publish a lot of books on Amazon. I provide the first review of my own books but of course proclaim my relationship to the author (it's me!) For other books I will title my review: Publisher's Review. So far Amazon has been OK with that.

Of course the first 5-10 reviews of my books come from "friends," that is: people I respect in the industry who happen to know me.

Amazon is open to be gamed in several ways. I can change the Amazon rank by buying my own books for instance. If I could afford it I could push any book to #1.(If you picked a slow week and timed it properly this could be as few as 5,000 books over 3-4 days). Of course Amazon benefits from an author or publisher buying her own book.

AnuraJuly 8, 2015 8:26 AM

A little anecdote: I signed up for LinkedIn at one point. Without entering anything but my first and last name, it came up with suggested contacts. One was the daughter of a friend of my fathers. To this day, I have no clue how they made the connection - neither my father nor their father was ever on LinkedIn, and to the best of my knowledge the extent of their internet communication was phone and email. I never entered anything more on LinkedIn after seeing that.

John BoyJuly 8, 2015 9:09 AM

Two points:

(1) Clearly the relevant issue here is how is Amazon detecting these relationships? Just based on my own cynicism I would expect that the kind of profile info that data brokers like BlueKai and Acxiom collect would be enough to make strong inferences given that the author is usually a public figure and the reviewer's identifying info, like street address and phone number are on file with Amazon.

It might only be economical to do such background research on specific cases, off the top of my head I can't think of a winnowing criteria, but I'm sure Amazon has spent thousands of man hours thinking about it. OR, much more worrisome, maybe they have data-sharing agreements in place with a few data brokers where Amazon gets bulk access in exchange for feeding the brokers customer purchasing info.

(2) I have first hand experience with this kind of fraud. My wife is good friends with the wife of a man famous for founding and operating a few non-profit corps promoting all kinds of science related endeavors, particularly high-profile 'moonshot' projects. Everyone reading this blog would recognize at least one of his corps. He wrote a book and after it was published he sent an email to all of his contacts soliciting Amazon reviews. Practically over-night he got tens of glowing reviews from extremely high-profile people in Silicon Valley, DC, etc. Power begets power.

Dr. I. Needtob AtheJuly 8, 2015 9:14 AM

"... an interesting story of a reviewer who had her reviewer..."

Typo.

mikeJuly 8, 2015 9:16 AM

Is relationship information subject to FISA court subpoena? In civil court, a divorce case for example?

Dumb foreignerJuly 8, 2015 9:26 AM

Strange. I thought these people were in the business of peddling books, and that any positive review would help that business. Vanity reviews aren't that rare...

If Amazon really is checking its rating system, then it should look at its German operation.

Back in 2010, scandal author Thilo S. published a book on August 30th telling how bad the country was doing because of all these unassimilated foreigners with low (non-aryan?) IQs invading it.

Dozens of extremely approving "reviews" had already been recorded before the book's official release. The number of advance copies made available was extremely limited, so the majority of these reviews couldn't have been made by actual readers. Could some "reviews" have been written by persons close to the author/editor?

By the time Amazon finally began shipping the titles, these reviews, of which several state that they are based on newspaper articles and excerpts, received thousands of approval clicks. There are today close to 800 reviews for that title, whose general tone run on the line of "one finally dares speak the truth", and "just look at the facts". It has in fact become a rallying post.

Thinking about reviews, I wonder how Uber would deal with users who want to specify criteria such as "no black driver", or insert discriminating code words in reviews... The issue must surely have come up already.

Maynard BrandonJuly 8, 2015 9:27 AM

With respect to Anura's comment, I'm just guessing but somewhere along the way, somebody, not necessarily you, let an app have access to a contacts list.

Slime Mold with MustardJuly 8, 2015 9:33 AM

@Anura

I believe that you have hit exactly on the point. We have not only ubiquitous surveillance, but also the massive sharing (or sale) of databases.

A decade ago, I was not much concerned about private companies collecting some data. After all - what can they do except try to sell me useless crap? But when they started building "social networks" it had gone way, way too far. Google and Facebook build profiles on people who do not use their services. I'm sure they aren't the only ones.

All these data are also available to the domestic authorities; either by purchase, NSL, or direct penetration of the server farms.

Given the startlingly apathetic response to the Snowden revelations, I can't see any remedy coming soon. : (

Frank WilhoitJuly 8, 2015 9:54 AM

A bad black mark for Amazon, but not the one you think.

Amazon would have an interest in ensuring that reviews were unbiassed; but that goal is not generally achievable (at justifiable cost) and pinprick efforts to achieve it are merely silly. It doesn't matter which pinprick efforts or how pursued. The failure is a failure of perspective.

Spaceman SpiffJuly 8, 2015 9:56 AM

This is why I only buy hard copy from Amazon, and try not to leave reviews. They SUCK!

Spaceman SpiffJuly 8, 2015 9:58 AM

It is also interesting that my comments to this site take a lot longer to process than other sites. It is possible because they are being (paranoia here) scanned by the NSA or whomever?

mbJuly 8, 2015 10:00 AM

Amazon sent a notice a few weeks back saying they revising their review policy and they would now screen reviews, so only reviews that were most useful would be displayed. This seems like it was an inappropriate application of that policy, and pulling public info from social networks seems a bit overboard. Also, I would imagine many that many professional book reviewers are acquainted with many authors and they get the books for free - are professional book reviews biased? probably and this one was probably biased as well - but that alone does not make it bad, especially if they bought the book. This policy probably needs some fine tuning.

Ted YoungJuly 8, 2015 10:02 AM

FYI, Amazon has been doing this for years. The arms race around reviews has been intense. I would be interested in knowing whether they link information they have with thirst party info.

JaysonJuly 8, 2015 10:12 AM

Amazon is wasting their time. Nobody takes reviews or rankings that seriously any more. Occasionally something can be learned from them, but they are mostly fluff pieces that don't reflect reality.

Even a little exposure to the web generates requests for ratings and surveys. One purchase reveals that all those five star comments aren't real...or a five star book rated by thousands is only a two star for you.

On the flip side, one star ratings are generally people dissatisfied with customer service and have nothing to do with the product.

There was a time when reading the comments and ratings was useful, now it's just noise.

DanielJuly 8, 2015 10:26 AM

The bigger problem with Amazon reviews is that reviews are ranked by the percentage of positive/negative and not absolute positive. This makes a mockery of the phrase "most helpful". A review can have 1000 up votes but if it also has a 1000 down votes it will rank lower than a review that has 10 up votes and no down votes. It is this fact that causes most people to write fluff reviews--down votes have a disproportionate effect on the ranking of reviews.


Al YancovicJuly 8, 2015 10:47 AM

@SK


Do you have a better idea to increase the integrity of reviews

YES!

We need those government satellites (mentioned in another Schneier blog entry some weeks back) to capture the thoughts of all the individuals in the entire population. These thoughts then need to be analyzed to determine the individuals planned next step(s).

Of course we will have to combine this with data otherwise captured by NSA to definitely identify the individuals and map the individual to the correct captured set of thoughts.

Then, if the individual is thinking something along the lines of "I will give my friends book a glowing review even though it is garbage", the government will send a notification to Amazons server. Amazons server will then promptly reject the review that individual.

Problem solved!

R. J. WeberJuly 8, 2015 10:50 AM

@Slime Mold with Mustard


Google and Facebook build profiles on people who do not use their services.

Certainly they are not doing this for their own benefit. They are just giving a helping hand to the government...

Andrew ConwayJuly 8, 2015 11:22 AM

I've long since given up paying any attention to Amazon book reviews since they moved a review I wrote to a different book by the same author. I do read product reviews sometimes, but only the one star ones. That being said, I suspect this may just be Amazon trying to deal with sock puppets, by questioning reviews that come in from the same IP address as the author uses, or are closely linked in some other obvious way.

MANICHAEANKOALAJuly 8, 2015 11:39 AM

I wanted to find out who was using up more toilet paper than necessary in my dorm, so I've installed three hidden toilet cams and connected them via wifi to my personal server. What's wrong with that?!

MANICHAENKOALAJuly 8, 2015 11:42 AM

The pseudocode was automatically stripped out in my previous message. The comment was flanked by "[sarcasm] - [/sarcasm]"

Len JaffeJuly 8, 2015 11:48 AM

Now we're surprised that software vendors lied about the capability of their products?

That's amazingly naive in 2015. It was ever thus.

author #7July 8, 2015 11:55 AM

Most comments here are off topic. This isn't about reviews, it's about Amazon's information gathering. I've long been suspicious about their success at not making money. Frankly I'd be shocked if the National Surveillance Agency hadn't been in bed with Amazon from the beginning. What a fantastic data collection port! Books are only a small part of their business. And of course there's Amazon cloud services...

Joe BuckJuly 8, 2015 12:14 PM

In any narrow academic specialty, it is likely that the world experts in the field know each other, so if they can't review each others' books, who is going to do it?

I know a somewhat successful author who self-publishes, and when he started out, his friends were the ones posting the glowing reviews. But those reviews were, for the most part, substantive and gave the readers of the reviews a good idea of whether they were likely to enjoy the book. Amazon should not remove such reviews. Instead, if they are worried about integrity, they should require full disclosure, as in "Full disclosure: I have known Mary Sue Fangirl for many years."

gordoJuly 8, 2015 12:30 PM

Rather than expecting disclosure from reviewers, about their relationships or lack thereof with authors, maybe Amazon should simply tag each review with a link to the relevant social graph :-D

JustinJuly 8, 2015 12:31 PM

@MANICHAEANKOALA

I wanted to find out who was using up more toilet paper than necessary in my dorm, so I've installed three hidden toilet cams and connected them via wifi to my personal server. What's wrong with that?!

I have too many bad memories of people like that from when I went to college.

Nick PJuly 8, 2015 1:20 PM

@ author #7

It's a truism about them not making money. There's been times where they did make money and plenty of it. I found that out accidentally when I pulled their annual report to mock it lol... Truth is probably that they've mostly barely made a profit or not quite made a profit. Yet, there's plenty of people in the company making good money. If that's the goal, then running a mostly unprofitable or barely profitable company to do it for so long without bankruptcy is quite impressive to me. They just... won't... go... away. Haha.

@ all

Far as the story, it's probably one of Amazon's attempts at fraud prevention and maybe targeted advertising. I bet it ties into their general system of trying to understand and profile people to increase sales. They then have extra analyses piggyback on the same system to do things like spot connections between reviewers that might lead to phony reviews. They mostly suck at this given the number of companies specializing in false reviews. Plausible to think it's their half-assed attempt, though.

Let's also remember that much activity in data-mining industry is "Let's do this and see what happens. Might be value in long-term we're not seeing."

JoshJuly 8, 2015 1:44 PM

This is interesting.

And complete BULLS**T.

Here's why.

Look at the professionally ghost-written review of The Everything Store by MacKenzie Bezos. SHE IS THE WIFE OF JEFF BEZOS. But it's still here. Still published. And note the 'curly quotes' and other indicators that that it was written professionally (probably not by her, but rather her assistant or PR firm), then COPIED INTO the Amazon review form.

http://www.amazon.com/review/R2I0T26SV0ELPP/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0316219282&channel=detail-glance&nodeID=283155&store=books

OzzyTechJuly 8, 2015 1:48 PM

@Anura - your LinkedIn experience sounds creepy, I would like to know more. Was it the surnames? I know many of these I have experienced were faulty. You can see something similar from a Google search. Try Googling "windows". It has no idea what you mean, so you'll have results ranging from Pella to Microsoft. And for weeks after that, ads will pop up for Pella and Anderson, even though all you originally wanted was updates on Windows 10. Occasionally it will seem to know more than it does and that's what is creepy. Hey, if all this machinery were that smart, why can't they get the weather forecast better than a coin flip?

MaryJuly 8, 2015 2:36 PM

One thing to note: Goodreads, the social media/library/review site, was bought by Amazon in 2013, so that is a huge source of highly detailed information which is actually "owned" by Amazon.

I had half-heartedly used Goodreads to track my books. Lots of friends use it and it would be great if it were something like Ravelry. But haven't touched it since it became part of Amazon.

I don't envy Amazon, however, the crazy (and paranoia) is strong with aspiring authors.

ERJuly 8, 2015 3:01 PM

@Mary, it looks like the alternative book review/cataloging/community site LibraryThing still exists as an alternative. Empowered by awareness people can make choices not just about if or whether to shop or review, but about how to do it (when to use an intermediary for purchasing particulars, guarding private area of interest by diversifying purchased items/reviewed/discussed, etc)

Aryan GeniusJuly 8, 2015 4:21 PM

Let's face it, there are many false (usually positive but often negative as well) reviews. For example, an author and editor of many quality publications related to infosec often has his pals write glowing reviews. Yes, his publications are good, but these reviews don't provoke trust in his abilities. Why such a good editor resort to such low tricks?

Through the years I have come to recognize this and always makes me hesitate to buy something.

Jim FallowJuly 8, 2015 4:35 PM

Amazons’ data mining capability is far more advanced than what the public realizes. Notice after you purchase they want you to (foolishly) share on social sites.

Digital Fingerprinting Test
Test Amazon's Digital Fingerprinting by going there and see if you received tailored ads when NOT signed in and caches cleaned.

These are the layers of multi-level security i had enabled to remain anonymous.

First add ALL these add-ons to you browser
http://b.agilob.net/browsers-addons-reference/

Then even after further adding an excellent VPN and using CCleaner Amazon still identified me!

Only by changing Firefox’s header profile (user agent) and internal setting’s using Random Agent Spoofer worked!

lastly study these Firefox about:config settings:
https://support.mozilla.org/en-US/kb/how-stop-firefox-making-automatic-connections

BoppingAroundJuly 8, 2015 4:47 PM

Spaceman Spiff,
I suppose the CMS might be a bit pensive whilst processing commenting. Several people have noticed that quirk too. Even on lynx.

jdgaltJuly 8, 2015 4:56 PM

This appears to be a side effect of Puppygate, the feud among science fiction fans over control of the Hugo Awards.

Basically, one clique has been dominating the awards for years by organizing a voting bloc. But a couple of dissident voting blocs, the "Puppies", have arisen, and this year managed to send in enough nominating ballots that most of the candidates on the final ballot this year are theirs.

The older bloc didn't like that at all. So they're having their supporters flood Amazon with phony bad reviews of the books favored by the "Puppies". Naturally, the "Puppies" know about it and are complaining to Amazon, so it had to do something.

You can bet that this story isn't over, and won't even be over in September when this year's awards are given out.

Another JustinJuly 8, 2015 5:29 PM

The explanation I have seen for this is that the reviewer had previously been sent an online *Amazon Gift Card* by the author (for those who don't know anyone with an Amazon account can send a gift card while logged in to Amazon to anyone else). So of course they knew the two email addresses corresponding to reviewer and author had prior connection. And in view of the review gaming, Amazon has picked up potential connections like this previously and disallowed reviews. This is far the most likely explanation of what happened. I'm not saying it couldn't happen otherwise but having had family and contacts on Amazon for years I have never seen anything suspicious. By contrast, yes LinkedIn is creepy and I don't go there.

AnuraJuly 8, 2015 9:19 PM

So I've been doing a little bit of research on the LinkedIn, and I think I might have an idea of how they figured out the connection. There is a feature of LinkedIn where you can upload your contact list. Well, while neither my father and my father's friend were on linked in, my father's friend's wife is. If she uploaded her address book and it contained my father and her daughter, well, to the best of my knowledge there is not a single other person in the US with my first and last name, and googling my name will, through various public records sites, list my father, mother, and brother. So with those contact lists, it should be pretty easy to make the connection between me and them. And no, I am not any less creeped out by LinkedIn if this is how they do it.

Nick PJuly 8, 2015 11:28 PM

@ Joe K

That was hilarious. Especially the war on the status of the bug. And a slow clap for the extreme dedication to professionalism over humor of Paul Sladen despite the fact that even Shuttleworth was having fun there. Lol...

Bob PaddockJuly 9, 2015 7:58 AM

Anyone happen to know how to reach a real live, breathing, thinking Human in Amazon's CreateSpace self-publishing arm?

I published a book there, released this week.

Their moronic W9 tax form keeps putting a comma in my address that does not belong there then complains that what I enter is not an *exact* match for the IRS database it quires.
I'm going to have to figure out how to do my own IRS database quire to see what is in there for my records, as the IRS doesn't answer their mail due to budget cuts. Must be a API document someplace... What are the security implications for such a tax base query system? How secure is the tax data being held by Amazon?

It is very clear from my interaction with their support system over several *months* that is is nothing but an Eliza System, even at the second tier support level. :-(

http://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/1511504137

lynxJuly 10, 2015 2:29 AM

@Spaceman Spiff o "It is also interesting that my comments to this site take a lot longer to
process than other sites. It is possible because they are being (paranoia here)
scanned by the NSA or whomever?"

BoppingAround "Spaceman Spiff, I suppose the CMS might be a bit pensive whilst processing commenting. Several people have noticed that quirk too. Even on lynx."

E.g., see https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2015/04/uglymail_gmail_.html#c6693188 (the majority denied that it was specific to Bruce Schneier's site).

guestJuly 15, 2015 3:41 AM

What is preventing Amazon from misidentifying people as friends of an author? For example a lot of people have their comments censored by Yelp. I was identified as a spambot reviewer by Yelp and asked them why and they simply said that their filter knows I am a spambot and that they cannot tell me why I'm identified as a spambot. Before my reviews appeared among the list but six months later my reviews appeared under their censored list. After they told me that they cannot tell my why I was identified as a spambot I asked them to close my account and stop sending emails asking me to write reviews since my reviews are worthless anyway. I received a response from them saying that in the future they may determine I'm not a spambot but they can stop sending emails and close my account if I want. It make you wonder how accurate these sites are if they incorrectly identify people and simply tell people when they ask that they cannot explain why they are detected as leaving false reviews.

YynxsJuly 15, 2015 7:06 AM

Jayson:

I agree and disagree with you. The positive reviews are indeed a waste of time. The negative reviews, however, give crowd indicators of worth.

Way back in the 90s I spent some time explaining to my computer customers how to read advertising. In those days computers were expensive and the customers were always asking "What computer should I buy? Which one is best?"

What I explained was: Read what the manufacturer is saying about their competitors and what their computer is better at. Nothing else. If that doesn't apply to you, then the lower priced one is just fine.

This backward view of advertisements applies to book, product, and services reviews. Read the bottom 10% of the reviews, not the top. These people are dissatisfied or just plain whiny and their comments will tell you either the real problems with the item or that nothing that concerns you is really wrong.

Please note, when advertisers discover this, then look for bottom review flooding to cover the real flaws.

RJuly 15, 2015 11:50 PM

I suggest everyone always use different emails to access different sites. Also, don't log in to your Amazon, Google, Yahoo accounts etc when you are browsing other websites. Log in to one of them, buy a book, check an email etc, and then you should log out. After closing your browser, delete all records, cookies etc. Also, Firefox and other browsers has a lot of plugin to help you to fight against Big Data collecting. You can try them.

WaelJuly 16, 2015 3:06 AM

@R,

Good advice ...

Also, Firefox and other browsers has a lot of plugin to help you to fight against Big Data collecting.

Unverified browser plugins are also dangerous!

JonJuly 16, 2015 11:46 AM

As an author, I disagree with Amazon removing these reviews. Just because a review is left by someone who knows me doesn't mean that it is a useless review. Friends and family are generally honest people, even if they are a little biased, so are most fans of an author.

Now, if you are talking about someone an author knows abusing the system to increase the book's ratings, then yes, that is wrong. As is purposely writing bad reviews on others works. Amazon should target and remove reviews that are trying to game the system to give an unfair advantage, not remove a review just because the person knows the author.

As a new author with no fan base, who else out there will ever review my work except people I know? That's how it starts. Then as others read those reviews they buy the book and check it out, and hopefully leave their own review. But you have to start somewhere. As long as it's a fair and honest review it should be allowed.

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