The (Unintentional) Amazon Guide to Dealing Drugs

Amazon the corporate entity doesn't actually produce a guide for dealing drugs, but its purchase-recommendation algorithm sure seems to have done just that. 
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One day, some drug dealer bought a particular digital scale—the AWS-100— on the retail site, Amazon.com. And then another drug dealer bought the same scale. Then another. Then another.

Amazon's data-tracking software watched what else these people purchased, and now, if you buy the AWS-100 scale, Amazon serves up a quickstart kit for selling drugs.

Along with various scale-related paraphernalia, we find: 

This is classic data mining at work. Even if each scale purchaser only made one other drug-related purchase, when you look at the clusters, the pattern becomes obvious.

Amazon clearly did not set out to create such a field-tested kit for starting an illicit business. But looking at the list of items, it sure seems like they've created a group of products by looking at the purchasing habits of people who may not be recording all of their incomes on W-2s and 1099s. Not everyone who buys one of these scales is a drug dealer, but... it sure seems popular among a demographic in need of baggies. 

So, how long until police departments find an AWS-100 scale and request account information from Amazon?

The digital-rights advocacy group, EFF, has dinged Amazon's terms of service for its lack of transparency around how they cooperate with law enforcement: "The service is not making clear to their users what standards and rules law enforcement must follow when they seek access to sensitive user data." 

Privacy, such as it is on the web, is collective. Beware who you share purchases or click-patterns with. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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