Say No to Online Surveys

It was buried deep in an article about something else, but nonetheless drifted to a Washington Post piece about how a data analysis firm was stepping up efforts to win government contracts. It seems Cambridge Analytics had done extensive work for the Trump campaign by emphasizing its ability to identify and target voters by psychological profiling.

Making such a move, by the way, is politically neutral, as both campaigns did a bunch of it. So will your Congressional candidates (and probably anyone locally who could afford it).

The company spokesman insisted that the information used is not intrusive: “This is not medical data or financial data. It’s what cereal you eat for breakfast and what car you drive.” It noted that Cambridge has a database of 230 million American adults, with “up to 5,000 pieces of demographic, consumer and lifestyle information about each individual, as well as psychological information people have shared with the company through quizzes on social media and extensive surveys” [emphasis mine].

Yes, quizzes on social media — those stupid things about “what city should you live in” and “who is your best friend” and “if you were a sci-fi character destroying cities, what method would you use (choose: stomping on people, fire-breathing, or nuclear waste).”

In a recent speech, the spokesman declared, “By having hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans undertake this survey, we were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States.” This seems a bit boastful, but as a researcher at The George Washington University said, “They’re using similar methodologies to those the intelligence agencies use with openly available data. They are exploiting our dependence on social media.”

OK, so we all knew these quizzes were used to target advertising, but who realized they were being stashed away to make profiles on us? We can’t stop other people from sharing things like where we live (and through subscription lists they sell, what we read), but can we just say no to volunteering to be profiled? Do it.

Owning the World

Sometimes, it seems like Amazon owns everything. Well, not quite all of it, but give it time.

In January, Amazon announced that it was planning to add 100,000 new jobs in the next 18 months. Not all of them are in the retail area, but that sector is growing for the corporation; in the last year, it opened 26 new warehouses. Its retail sales were up more than 11% in November and December, retail’s banner months, while mall traffic in the U.S. was down 12% and overall retail sales were down 10%.

At about the same time that Amazon was promoting its job growth, Macy’s said it would lay off 10,000 people and close stores, and The Limited closed all 250 of its retail stores, costing 4,000 more jobs. Not a good time for traditional retail.

An Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore was added last year, with 3,000 new jobs, in a plant once occupied by GM. But watching news stories of its operation shows why they will survive when others falter. Rather than having people walk the aisles to pick items, there are hundreds of robots that bring pallets of items to workers who stand still. The actual people still choose the items that go in the boxes, a skill not (yet) entrusted to robots. Since people and forklifts don’t have to travel most aisles, they can pack the pallets very densely, saving warehouse space. And the people’s productivity, freed from walking, is amazing.

How It’s Done

The packages then go through conveyors where shipping labels are automatically attached, and packages are sorted into destination trucks, all without human intervention. This is one reason Amazon can deliver a ton of things in two days or less.

In a small aside, I remember many years ago being called to repair some computers in the old GM plant. At the time, I was driving my first Toyota, and parked in its lot amidst a sea of GM pickups (its product at that plant). As shift change time approached, my contact inside asked me what I drove, and suggested that I might want to finish rather quickly and get the hell out of there if I valued my vehicle at all. A smart man.

Amazon also makes money off its Prime memberships and Echo, its voice-activated appliance and a good example of how it keeps pushing the limits of what it does.

But Amazon’s main money-maker, and where many of the new jobs will come in, is Amazon Web Services (AWS), its cloud computing division. If you use Netflix, you are using AWS, which streams its media. It is estimated that AWS provided 74% of Amazon’s income last quarter — which is good because its international retail division lost an estimated $487 million. Yikes.
AWS works with providers of all sorts to create apps and test them, and when they’re ready, they can be launched on hundreds (or if needed, thousands) of “virtual servers” that you rent from AWS, thus eliminating the need for you to buy and maintain your own.

Amazon owns the world? Not yet,
but ….

Cliff Feldwick is owner of Riverside Computing and does PC troubleshooting, data retrieval and network setups for small businesses, when not ducking robots. He can be reached at 410-880-0171 or at [email protected]. Older columns are online at