Finding Subversives With Amazon Wishlists

It used to be you had to get a warrant to monitor a person or a group of people. Today, it is increasingly easy to monitor ideas. And then track them back to people. Most of us don’t have access to the databases, software, or computing power of the NSA, FBI, and other government agencies. But an individual with access to the internet can still develop a fairly sophisticated profile of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens using free and publicly available resources. Here’s an example.

There are many websites and databases that could be used for this project, but few things tell you as much about a person as the books he chooses to read. Isn’t that why the Patriot Act specifically requires libraries to release information on who’s reading what? For this reason, I chose to focus on the information contained in the popular Amazon wishlists.

Amazon wishlists lets anyone bookmark books for later purchase. By default these lists are public and available to anybody who searches by name. If the wishlist creator specifies a shipping address, someone else can even purchase the book on Amazon and have it shipped directly as a gift. The wishlist creator’s city and state are made public on the wishlist, but the street address remains private. Amazon’s popularity has created a vast database of wishlists. No index of all wishlists is available, but it remains possible to view all wishlists by people of a particular first name. A recent search for people named Mark returned 124,887 publicly viewable wishlists. (Data Mining 101: Finding Subversives With Amazon Wishlists)