Amazon reads its customers like a book

Amazon knows your child's birthday, and Bezos wants to invite himself to the party. You may want a say in this

One of the benefits of patents is that they expose both the tactics and strategy of companies that use the system. Amazon is the latest outfit to reveal its thinking in this way with its 'Methods and systems of assisting users in purchasing items' US patent. The online retail giant reveals the startling information that if someone purchases a doll's dress, then it's likely to be destined for a girl, and that sequential annual purchase of gifts suitable for a two-, three- and four-year-old allows you to infer that it's somebody's birthday.

This astounding intelligence will come as some surprise to data miners, who hitherto thought they were working in a mature field with decades-old roots in statistical analysis, heuristics and relational database systems. The depth of the patent might also surprise Amazon's customers, who may not have suspected that every aspect of their online interactions is prey for the eagle-eyed marketeers. You might think that posting a review of a book is a service to other readers, your contribution to the literary community; to Amazon, it's an exploitable source of data on your personality and potential buying habits.

Regardless of the validity of the patent, Amazon's intentions raise important issues. We are all now well versed in the potentials and pitfalls of having transactions analysed in loyalty card schemes and the like, to the extent that we expect to be and are protected by layers of law and best practice. Such things happen with our agreement, and impose restrictions on what the data collators can collect and what they can do with what they find.

But Amazon wants to push that further. If all our interactions with a company are fair game, where are the limits to what that company can do? An ISP might analyse the traffic patterns of its corporate clients, for example — information that would be of considerable value to competitors. Without strong safeguards for all such information, the only way to protect personal or corporate privacy is to say and do as little as possible — a course of action that can only harm online activities in general and e-commerce in particular. We must demand explicit promises of compliance from any companies minded to squeeze the last drop of information from their clients.

Perhaps the best way to underline the need for express protection would be to patent the idea of inferring a company's business intentions from its patent filings. That should focus a few minds in Amazon's legal department.