This latest invention is yet further cause for concern, because it could involve profiling children and exploit the giving of gifts and the sense of community that customer reviews were designed to engender, advocate groups said.
Here's how the proposed system works, according to Amazon's patent claim: Amazon would gather information about gift recipients, including their names, addresses and items customers send them. The system would then try to guess their gender, age and the gift-giving occasion based on the type of present, messages written in gift cards, dates gifts are ordered, items on wish lists, and commentary in related consumer reviews.
The system appears particularly geared toward people buying gifts for children, with its ability to recommend "age appropriate" gifts. For instance, the message, "Suggested Toys and Books That Would Bring A Smile To Joseph Doe, age 2!" may greet a registered customer who visits Amazon in the future, according to the patent claim.
The prospect of child profiling is particularly troubling in light of recent high-profile cases of criminal data theft at ChoicePoint, Bank of America and Reed Elsevier Group's LexisNexis service. The practice may even run afoul of online child protection laws, advocate groups said.
Coyle's organization, EPIC and a number of other like-minded groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission a couple of years ago alleging Amazon's online toy store and children's reviews violate the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. COPPA makes it illegal for Web sites to collect information from children under the age of 13 without the consent of a parent.
Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith downplayed concerns, saying the company wouldn't do anything to violate COPPA and that all the hand-wringing is premature.
"When we submitted the patent application, we tried to be as forward-thinking as possible as to how we might apply the technology, but it's not something we're currently doing," she said. "It's all hypothetical."
Even if the system doesn't violate COPPA, it involves a level of snooping that's just plain creepy, some advocates said. Particularly worrisome is the fact that people wouldn't even have to shop at Amazon for the company to have a profile on them.
"They are building a speculative profile on you before you even know you're dealing with them, because someone sends you a gift," Catlett said. "They're guessing who knows what about you."
Catlett's group has unsuccessfully lobbied Amazon to let customers see their complete profiles and delete them if they ask. He would also like the online retailer to agree to never sell customer data under any circumstances.
He's particularly dismayed by the prospect of Amazon monitoring customer reviews for marketing purposes.
"This is a classic example of how a lack of privacy protection chills speech in public," Catlett said. "People will hesitate to publish reviews if they know the result is to enlarge their profile in some secret marketing database."