Amazon Patents Measures to Prevent In-Store Comparison Shopping

Amazon has been issued a patent on security measures that prevents people from comparison shopping while in the store. It's not a particularly sophisticated patent -- it basically detects when you're using the in-store Wi-Fi to visit a competitor's site and then blocks access -- but it is an indication of how retail has changed in recent years.

What's interesting is that Amazon is on the other side of this arms race. As an on-line retailer, it wants people to walk into stores and then comparison shop on its site. Yes, I know it's buying Whole Foods, but it's still predominantly an online retailer. Maybe it patented this to prevent stores from implementing the technology.

It's probably not nearly that strategic. It's hard to build a business strategy around a security measure that can be defeated with cellular access.

Posted on June 23, 2017 at 6:26 AM • 41 Comments

Comments

Dr. I. Needtob AtheJune 23, 2017 6:39 AM

"What's interesting is that Amazon is on the other (side) of this arms race."

You left a word out.

I never bother with Wi-Fi connections because cellular is almost always faster and there's no log-on hassle, but I use Google Project Fi and I wonder if my Google phone would automatically switch to a store's Wi-Fi network.

Keith StallanJune 23, 2017 7:28 AM

Very limited in is usefulness I would imagine, with growing user awareness of the risks of using untrusted wifi many people are now either using a vpn or not using an untrusted network.

AppeosJune 23, 2017 7:45 AM

Ironically, I often use my iPhone to check prices on Amazon when stood in shops, usually resulting in me deciding to abandon the purchase and buy from Amazon instead.

As Victor points out above, it seems defensive, which is a good thing.

Tim LovegroveJune 23, 2017 7:46 AM

"It's probably not nearly that strategic. It's hard to build a business strategy around a security measure that can be defeated with cellular access."

Unless they plan to jam cellular in their stores as well.

Chris ZweberJune 23, 2017 7:47 AM

I am ready to internalize and accept I want to share most of my data for the sake of convenience. I want automated comparison shopping. I care a lot more about my budget than my privacy.

I would even actively opt-in and share my login credentials with 3rd parties with good reputation such as Amazon.

For example if Amazon released an app that would price compare my taxi trip across Uber, Lyft and other ride sharing services I would gladly share all of my Uber and Lyft login credentials with Amazon.

PeterTJJune 23, 2017 8:11 AM

Surely this would be illegal in may jurisdictions as anti-competitive at best and an invasion of privacy at worst.

What gives a retailer the right to block access to a competitor's website just because your are using their free Wi-Fi particular if it's not explained very clearly on the landing page when you sign into the Wi-Fi.

It would actually encourage me to shop somewhere else to be honest.

I'm a customer and my buying something from them is not something they are entitled to.

It's like the incredibly inflated prices you pay for beverages in most resorts

Unnamed lurkerJune 23, 2017 8:12 AM

I can't see this having any effect on their bottom line except maybe a small backfire.

What little money they gain from the few customers hindered by their "security measure" probably won't compensate for those that will refrain from buying exactly because they can't confirm that the product in front of them is cheaper than in another store.

Add to that the PR negativity of their decision. If their products were cheaper they wouldn't feel "threatened" by a comparison with another store's. Therefore, since they're taking action to hinder it, it must be because some other store has a better deal. It would make me less inclined to even visit their store in the first place, and less prone to believe I have a good deal after I'm there.

@Tim_Lovegrove:

Unless they plan to jam cellular in their stores as well.

That would be a sure fire way to lose a lot of customers, seeing as nowadays in our modern society cellphone access is pretty much a necessity for most people.

matteoJune 23, 2017 8:17 AM

maybe offtopic but some time ago i have read that an online shop had prices higher if you visit it from a mac and lower prices if you use a windows pc.

if i got this correct it is a way to censor websites that might sell similar products. i don't think is nice to do. is this legal?

MilanJune 23, 2017 8:36 AM

A patent doesn't give you the right to do something, it gives you the right to sue someone else trying to do it. It's quite likely that the intent of the patent is to deter competitors from considering blocking Amazon.com for price comparisons.

MarcosJune 23, 2017 8:41 AM

@Chris Zweber

What makes you think they would care about invading your privacy if it wasn't for draining even more money from your budget? Protecting your privacy is protecting your budget.

@PeterTJ

Why blocking some sites on their internet would be illegal? Why would it also be a privacy invasion?

Gregory Carson, Esq.June 23, 2017 8:43 AM

Bruce,

The patent would almost certainly fail a challenge in an appeal to the USPTO and would never be upheld in a court. There is nothing novel or non-obvious in regards to a business owner disabling all or selectively part of a private network.

Unlike some of the patents filled by Walker Digital to use as a sword or shield to control an action by a person or business, this idea fails on all but the very smallest of instances...wifi only cell phone users.

The cost to file along with the cost to enforce wouldn't be worth economic benefit to implement even if they patent would hold water.

Walmart Fulfilling Amazon OrdersJune 23, 2017 8:56 AM

The scheme:
1) Place am order at Amazon.com
2) The customers info is then transferred to Walmart.com to fulfill
3) Walmart.com takes control ships the merchandise directly to the Amazon customers address
4) the package arrives at your doorstep drenched in high-contrast advertising stating ‘Thanks for shopping at Walmart.com & Download our Mobile App’.

The Amazon customer full name is now listed on the outside package as a ‘Walmart customer’.
These are desperate times folks...

Arch competitor Walmart is now free to share confidential Amazon customer lists with its numerous data-miners including Google. Facebook, Adobe and Microsoft.
In other words, the whole big-data world is watching as Amazon customers falsely believe they are placing confidential orders. Spies luv this type of deception!

What recourse do data-raped customer’s have?
Was a verified Walmart account created in their name?
Will a personalized marketing campaign of harassment now begin?
Are these questionable tactics of poaching competitors through a proxy legal?

Chris HathcockJune 23, 2017 9:04 AM

I think it actually does do some novel things. Figure 4 shows a flowchart of the steps taken before blocking or permitting access. If competition is desired, they can generate discounts and coupons on the fly if you find a lower price. If there's a complementary item in store, it can recommend that. It can also notify a sales representative that you're comparison shopping so they can assist you. I would guess that Amazon actually has plans to test this in brick and mortar stores and is not just creating it defensively.

Regarding the comment about Project Fi, Google has always used a VPN when connecting me to public WiFi. I imagine a VPN would avoid this system.

TatütataJune 23, 2017 9:32 AM

I noticed this news item last week but found it not interesting enough to mention on the squid thread.

I had to look up the patent which the WaPo journalist didn't bother to specify. (Kudos to Bruce Schneier for providing a link).

This turd was only filed in the US back in 2012. The applicant had to take deliberate action for preventing the USPTO to prevent it from being published 18 months after filing under 37 CFR 1.211.

In my book, this is a sign that the applicant does not attribute much value in this "invention", and essentially filed it for preventive (read: gaming) reasons... It's purpose might not be so much to prevent customers in "Amazon" stores to compare prices (I think the concept didn't exist back in 2012), but to prevent high-street store customers for checking the best price on Amazon.

The claims covers a site redirection based on URL analysis. This patent is mostly useless as most commercial sites now use HTTPS. In order to perform the method, one would have to break SSL on the site by spoofing certificates or disabling encryption (which wouldn't work in many browsers). A redirection could be performed wholesale based on the domain name, but this would IMO fall outside the scope of the claim.

Another issue is that of net neutrality. (I know, that's on the way out in the US, like Medicaid, the EPA, the CDC, and many other things). I would argue that a store offering wireless access is in essence an internet provider, with the service offered in the context of a sales contract. Could someone hijack a connection to a less desirable site?

Neil DonovanJune 23, 2017 9:35 AM

This patent is curious. It seems to ignore a ruling by the FCC against Marriott in October 2014.

Marriott was blocking customers' use of their own personal WiFi connections, telling their guests that they could purchase the hotel's WiFi instead. This violated the principal of Net Neutrality.

The FCC order is FCC DA 14-1444.

How could a patent be issued for a product whose use would be illegal?

StefanJune 23, 2017 9:46 AM

For those interested in the business strategy aspect, Ben Thompson (Stratechery) has interesting analysis on Amazon acquiring Whole Foods:

This is the key to understanding the purchase of Whole Foods: to the outside it may seem that Amazon is buying a retailer. The truth, though, is that Amazon is buying a customer — the first-and-best customer that will instantly bring its grocery efforts to scale.

QnJ1Y2UJune 23, 2017 9:53 AM

@Neil Donovan

Marriott got in trouble for blocking Wi-Fi signals, via a deauthentication attack. This patent looks to be a different animal, where they intercept and redirect requests after a Wi-Fi connection is established.

albertJune 23, 2017 10:04 AM


Blocking cellular access raises all kinds of legal issues.

Blocking certain traffic on your own wifi doesn't.

It's important to note that Amazons plan is to totally dominate the retail trade. It's a long-range goal, and like most US business that can't see beyond the next quarter, the public doesn't seem to notice. It's a membership-based system, like Costco. Membership systems offset the costs and allow very competitive pricing. Once they establish a de facto monopoly, then they can start to jack up prices in the best capitalist tradition. The 'beauty' of the plan is that they can control -all- sectors of business, not just retail trade. Watch for it. Coming soon to a store near you.

That's the future, folks.
. .. . .. --- ....

ScottJune 23, 2017 10:48 AM

As others have suggested, Amazon is probably doing this to preempt competitors like Lowe's, Menards, Home Depot, etc... from using geofencing in an attempt to block shoppers from looking up the price on Amazon.

Since Apple and other NASDAQ listees got rocked hard in the late 1990's by patent trolls and the US Congress has done everything in its power to make the patent system even worse, most patents these days are strictly defensive in nature. It's perverse, but it's stupid of them not to do it where they can.

EtienneJune 23, 2017 11:01 AM

When I use free wifi, I always VPN into my router at home. If they don't allow VPN I don't use free wifi.

I would never use open wifi to do any networking.

"Free is often too expensive"

Kurt SeifriedJune 23, 2017 11:43 AM

So I've moved to an "amazon first" shopping approach, if I can get it on amazon, especially via prime (so quick free delivery that I pay for once a year) then I buy it there if it's within a few dollars/% of cost (the time saved going to the store/hunting for it/etc adds up). I feel bad for retailers and I want to support local stores but most of the stores aren't really "lcoal" (Home depot? Lowes? Rona? Canadian Tire? Walmart? not really "local") so it's hard to justify supporting one giant retailer over another. I suspect like cable cutting once people try the online alternative, they won't go back to the old way.

PeterJune 23, 2017 12:06 PM

I'm confused. If you are going to do this, why bother with the "detects when you're using the in-store Wi-Fi to visit a competitor's site" part? Just block the competitor's site all the time.

RachelJune 23, 2017 1:39 PM

Chris Zweber

you spoke of Amazons good reputation


there are a lot of articles out their about Amazons poor ethics

http://www.alternet.org/economy/why-bezos-denials-about-exploitation-amazon-pure-sociopathic-ceo-speak

http://www.salon.com/2014/02/23/worse_than_wal_mart_amazons_sick_brutality_and_secret_history_of_ruthlessly_intimidating_workers/

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/11/amazon-accused-of-intolerable-conditions-at-scottish-warehouse

thats a mere sample, it's not a new idea.
this general situation with Amazon reminds of me of Uber, inside and out, public and private

timJune 23, 2017 2:32 PM

You use another organizations private network you play by their rules.

@rachel

Corporate culture and working in a warehouse are two different things. All told Amazon has an excellent corporate culture but run their warehouses as the same as everyone else. Uber's corporate culture was toxic through and through.

Cegfault McIrishJune 23, 2017 5:22 PM

Skimmed through comments but didn't see anyone mention this:

What if Amazon is going to use this not only to dominate retail marketing, but to sell this patent to other companies to "protect their interests" - ie, extort money from retail stores. For the retail store, if the cost is less than they lose with price comparisons, they'll pay.

Lawrence D’OliveiroJune 23, 2017 6:39 PM

Remember that patents aren’t about giving anybody the ability to do something, but about giving the patent-holder the ability to prevent them doing it.

Dave GrayJune 24, 2017 8:09 AM

Uhh, Best Buy got busted for this years back. They sent you to a different home page, depending on whether or not you were on their in-house WIFI. That way you couldn't use their on-line prices against them.
It came out, because people were finding prices that weren't what they remembered seeing before they came in the store. It fell apart when people switched to cellular, and got different numbers (can you say bait & switch?)

To some points above a) cellular jammers are illegal, and the FCC really doesn't like them, and b) in a large, steel framed building, you very often don't have a signal anyways.

Pat NiemeyerJune 24, 2017 10:01 AM

I think the blocking aspect is a red herring: My guess is that what Amazon really wants to do is offer the retailers referral fees if the user ends up ordering the product after seeing it at their store. This would turn the whole world into a showroom for Amazon and give a small lifeline to the retailers.

ST57June 24, 2017 3:21 PM

@Chris Zweber

"...I care a lot more about my budget than my privacy..."

Are you lost, son?

You do realize this schneier.com (and not facebook.com)?

KathyRoJune 24, 2017 11:32 PM

I agree with Milan : I doubt they plan to implement this. The patent is to ward off others who might try.

DroneJune 25, 2017 2:46 AM

"It's hard to build a business strategy around a security measure that can be defeated with cellular access."

Where I live, cellular data costs so much trying to use it to save money defeats the purpose.

TJJune 25, 2017 11:59 PM

Do stores in the US still have arbitrary sales tax? I know the states have exact figures but if you go in to a rural gas station it's usually like 7% where the law says like 5.3% for that type of product etc..

This seems like an old scheme to pad markup. It's kind of meant as profit management like this I guess..

Tom VeldhouseJune 26, 2017 8:12 AM

Amazon may be playing the role of radar detector and radar gun manufacturer as being the one and the same. Retail stores (i.e. Barnes & Noble) may pay Amazon to disable price comparisons (or show the same price) within retails stores for a subscription fee.

buburJune 26, 2017 11:42 AM

Not sure if by design or not. But in quite some stores here in Germany I have actually no or really bad reception. So, often it is not much fun to compare prices online like that. Not sure if they use jammers, and if that is even allowed here, but maybe many of those stores are just shielded very good by being built with ferroconcrete. Ferroconcrete could also be designed to shield certain wavelengths better than other.

Funnily, most of the time I actually don't compare online prices, but want to call someone from my family what we still need for home, or want to look some more information up (i.e. recipes). There is one supermarket close to me with almost zero reception, which is quite annoying...

paulJune 27, 2017 7:32 AM

was this patent granted, and if so, why? proxy servers have been in use for a long time and presumably are either non-patentable or patented long since.

the summary of the patent seems to be a very obvious configuration of a proxy.

John FalckJune 28, 2017 10:22 PM

I think the prior comment by Mr. D'Oliveiro likely hits the point. The patent, like other forms of intellectual property, both give you the exclusive right to do something, and prevents others from doing it in the same way unless you license that authority to them. By owning patents on methods to prevent in-store price checking, Amazon can file suit and prevent others for implementing that same approach, thereby allowing people to do in-store price checks (ideally comparing prices on Amazon, from Amazon's perspective). Rather than repressing price checking, Amazon most likely wants to protect it. Clever, if that is the strategy.


Lawrence D’Oliveiro • June 23, 2017 6:39 PM
Remember that patents aren’t about giving anybody the ability to do something, but about giving the patent-holder the ability to prevent them doing it.

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