April 21, 2014

Amazon’s recommendation algorithm making things easy for drug dealers


Amazon has unwittingly made it easy to build a starter kit for dealing drugs. ©Gtranquility. Via Shutterstock

Amazon has unwittingly made it easy to build a starter kit for dealing drugs.
©Gtranquility. Via Shutterstock

Recommended based on your recent purchases: plastic baggies, Breaking Bad on DVD, and an 8-ball!

That’s an exaggeration of what’s happened on Amazon recently, but it’s not so very far from the truth. Alexis C. Madrigal writes for The Atlantic that the website’s algorithm for making recommendations has been streamlining the process for drug dealers, offering up paraphernalia and supplies to those likely to find uses for them. Because Amazon’s data tracking uses common purchases to gauge what a customer might want next, the online superstore has unwittingly assembled what Madrigal describes as “a quickstart kit for selling drugs.”

She writes that it started when one enterprising drug dealer—and then a few more—purchased a digital AWS-100 scale, followed by other items that a dealer would find useful. They’re not always the same ones, but put together they paint a rather clear picture. Madrigal lists and links to the various purchases:

As she points out, there’s nothing inherently illicit about a digital scale, but the common purchases point to the fact that “it sure seems popular among a demographic in need of baggies.”

While the digital rights advocacy nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation states that Amazon “is not making clear to their users what standards and rules law enforcement must follow when they seek access to sensitive user data,” it would be prudent to think twice about what you’re buying from them, and whether it could have any nefarious uses. Should you find yourself in need of both a scale and caffeine powder in bulk (for independent and entirely innocent purposes, of course), think about balancing that out with some children’s toys to avoid looking suspicious and giving the impression that you’d also like anything with the words “TAP DAT ASH” emblazoned on it.


Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.