Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Data Tracking, Privacy, Amazon, And Clean Links

A "clean" Amazon link looks like this - https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0787HLF4X/

The Walls Have Ears

In recent years there has been an explosion in the amount of data collected about us without our permission, much of it driven by the desire to make money from ramming advertising down our throats (and some of it in order to manipulate us). You can see a teeny bit of what Facebook tracks about you here. Websites can find out a lot about where you are, what technology you use and so on just by clicking a link - see this site for a demonstration. And you know how every website says you are giving them permission to save cookies on your PC and track you, "to enhance your experience", even though all you are doing is reading a few paragraphs? "Enhance your experience" is a euphemism for "so we can profile you and make money from compiling and sharing that data with a mass of companies". As one example, I visit the PC gaming website Rock Paper Shotgun (now owned by Gamer Network Ltd). If you dig down to their "Privacy Policy" page you find out that by default they can share your data with 622 advertising companies. Six hundred and twenty-two! Just from one website visit.

A selection of advertising "partners" that Gamer Network Ltd can share your data with
(data from this page on 2018-11-06)

The default position taken by 99% of websites is that you have "opted in" to tracking unless you explicitly state otherwise - which is not in the least bit practical. I visit hundreds of sites a day, and using the web would be impossible if I had to find the settings and opt out of the forced spying on every site. Worse, it would usually only apply to a single browser on a single system, because - in order to opt out - they save another cookie to your browser! So you have to do it all over again, thousands of times, if you switch browser, or change PC, or use a different gadget, or clear your cache, or reinstall Windows etc ... blatantly it is impossible to opt out. And that doesn't even take account of all the other tracking taking place whenever you log into a site (or even don't - systems such as Flash cookies have also been used to secretly track people using Adobe software, as one example - see here, here, and here).

Amazon And Tracking - What Are "Clean" links?

A particular issue for authors (and readers, and reviewers) is Amazon. That's because Amazon is one of the largest marketplaces for books - but Amazon is also one of the companies making heavy use of automated data gathering and algorithms based on software-run assumptions based on that data. Assumptions which are often wrong, and can cause all sorts of problems.

Recently I suggested to someone who was sharing Amazon links to products that they only use "clean" links. I was asked for clarification, which reminded me that not everyone knows about how insidious all this spying and tracking is, and how it can affect us in the real world. It makes sense to share some of that information here. Then you'll know what is meant by "clean links" (at least in the case of Amazon links).

Basically, whenever you do something on Amazon, it adds codes to the URL with numbers that lead to references in their databases . E.g. if I search for my wonderful book Lost Solace, then copy the URL from the browser bar (e.g. to send it to someone else), then I get something like this:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Solace-Karl-Drinkwater-ebook/dp/B0787HLF4X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=3551297207&sr=8-1&keywords=lost+solace


The format is as follows:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Solace-Karl-Drinkwater-ebook/dp/B0787HLF4X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=3551297207&sr=8-1&keywords=lost+solace
Base URL

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Solace-Karl-Drinkwater-ebook/dp/B0787HLF4X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=3551297207&sr=8-1&keywords=lost+solace
Additional book data – unnecessary, can be deleted entirely and the URL still works

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Solace-Karl-Drinkwater-ebook/dp/B0787HLF4X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=3551297207&sr=8-1&keywords=lost+solace
ASIN – Amazon’s internal code for the book (like an ISBN)

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Solace-Karl-Drinkwater-ebook/dp/B0787HLF4X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=3551297207&sr=8-1&keywords=lost+solace
All sorts of additional unnecessary gunk

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Solace-Karl-Drinkwater-ebook/dp/B0787HLF4X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=3551297207&sr=8-1&keywords=lost+solace
Tracking data

That tracking data it the bit that connects the search to a database entry, which will also probably include the date and time of the visit, the country, the account doing the search (if logged into Amazon), the email addresses and physical addresses stored on the account, computer ID info, and connections to cookies saved on the PC – Amazon ones, maybe others too such as Facebook ones. So all sorts of stuff is being tracked, and because it is then stored on an Amazon database, you can’t see it or remove it. Amazon is understandably secretive about how all this works, so much of it is guesswork.

The problem is that if you share that URL and someone else clicks on it, their data is connected to that ID as well. A key thing to understand is that Amazon’s algorithms are automated (and often faulty – I have been incorrectly targeted by Amazon a few times with false positives based on their automated systems e.g. have a look at this article, which also links to other examples).

This can then lead to all sorts of issues. Suppose lots of people click on that link (for example, if it had been included in a review on a website), and they go on to buy the book and maybe review it – Amazon may then flag it up as “suspicious”, as if they are perhaps connected accounts, sockpuppets, accounts from a review manipulation farm, or are friends/family reviewing books for an author. All of those can lead to the reviews being removed, and sometimes even reviewing privileges removed, with no comeback or warning. Maybe also selling privileges and livelihoods in some cases. I read about this kind of thing regularly. And there’s no way to question Amazon’s data, or find out what evidence they are basing their incorrect assumptions on. And all that can potentially stem from just clicking on an Amazon link somewhere that has tracking codes in.

Therefore, if sharing Amazon links anywhere (blogs, emails, social media) the only safe option is to strip out the tracking data. Basically, everything after the ASIN needs to be deleted, so you end up with this:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Solace-Karl-Drinkwater-ebook/dp/B0787HLF4X/

That’s a clean and safe link.

As I mentioned earlier, the book title can also safely be removed if it is present – not a safety thing this time, just to make a tidier link:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0787HLF4X/

That goes to the same book as the one above it, but is much tidier, and also 100% safe to share (you can click on both to test them). The latter is the type of clean link that should be shared.

That’s why professional author groups insist on clean links. Clicking on even a single tracking link can cause all sorts of problems down the line, and accusations of review manipulation from Amazon – including emails that say this (an actual one I received):

We have determined that you have violated our Customer Review Creation Guidelines. As a result, we have suppressed all of your reviews, and you will no longer be able to post reviews on Amazon.com.

We made this decision after carefully considering your reviewing account. This decision is final.

We cannot share any further information about our decision, and we may not reply to further emails about this issue.


In that case I was lucky, and they admitted that they’d sent it me by mistake, though never explained why or how (because it would reveal all sorts of dodgy issues with how they manipulate data):

We have reviewed the message, and determined that you were sent incorrect correspondence

That’s why all Amazon links have to be clean. This is something anyone using Amazon links needs to be aware of, for their own account safety as well as that of others!

Firefox Privacy Tip

If you use Firefox as your browser then I recommend installing uBlock Origin.

This is an additional option (you can have both installed at the same time): Privacy Badger.

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!
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4 comments:

Catherine Cavendish said...

A most useful and informative post. Thank you for sharing this knowledge.

Karl Drinkwater said...

My pleasure, Catherine!

priya said...

Karl, how does this work with affiliate links? E.g: if you cleaned up your link let your instructions, then get the affiliate link and share it with others, how will that be effected?

Karl Drinkwater said...

Hi Priya, if you add affiliate links you'd always be best starting from a clean link anyway, and THEN adding it (so you don't have all the other guff attached). I'm not sure how Amazon deals with affiliate links - they obviously use them for some element of tracking, but I don't know whether they do it in ways that can't backfire (I hope so!), or if it could sometimes coincide with other data spikes to cause problems (often when there is a sudden surge in popularity). The problem with Amazon is that it is so big that one part of it might not be pulling in the same direction as another. AMS might lead to reviews or page reads that then trigger "suspicious activity" flags in another part; one customer service rep might say one thing, while someone working for KDP might say another, and so on. But Amazon won't share how it all works publicly or what evidence/data they use, and often provide no means of appeal. That's why I now mostly focus on risk reduction.