Photo: Gizmodo

Last month, I tried to find out what Amazon learns about people who have an Amazon Rewards Visa Signature Card from Chase. Neither Chase nor Amazon would give me a straight answer. In fact, Chase’s spokesperson, Mary Jane Rogers, gave me a wrong answer in telling me that Amazon fell into a category that it didn’t.

Rogers felt badly about that and reached out via email to apologize after the story came out, asking if she could do anything to help. I told her I still wanted to know what Amazon learns about people’s use of the card, particularly when they use it to buy things from places other than Amazon. She came back with this:

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“As a third-party partner of Chase, Amazon does receive customer data from Chase that is necessary to administer the program. For example, Chase provides rewards balances to enable Shop with Points purchases,” Rogers wrote. “However, Chase does not provide Amazon with any individual transactional data at specific merchants.”

That sounds reassuring on its face, but I spoke with an anonymous source who is familiar with how the data-sharing between Chase and Amazon works. While this person was disturbed that Chase and Amazon aren’t more transparent about what intel changes hands, the person said that it “isn’t that nefarious.”

“Chase says to Amazon, ‘Your consumers like to do these things. They spend on average this, or in aggregate this,’” this person said by phone. “They might even segment those consumers, but they always anonymize the consumers and deal with it in aggregate. Amazon knows me on their site but they can’t de-anonymize me from those aggregate reports.”

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The person told me that neither Chase nor Amazon sees what a cardholder actually bought, just where they bought it, and that what Chase passes along to Amazon isn’t individualized.

Based on what this person told me, it sounds like if I use my card to buy an $80 Rock n’ Play baby sleeper at Target, Amazon might see in a report that a person in my zip code spent $80 at a merchant with a generic code that describes stores like Target, Walmart, and others. Or my purchase might be included in a larger report that $300,000 was spent by cardholders in my zip code at Target that month.

Of course, Amazon knows a lot about those cardholders because they all shop at Amazon, so if it gets a report about spending in a zip code, it has a pretty good idea of which of its cardholders live in that zip code.

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Based on my conversation with this source, I sent Rogers the following email:

So this statement—”Chase does not provide Amazon with any individual transactional data at specific merchants”—seems to leave open a lot of possibilities.

For example, Amazon may be getting total spend by all cardholders at specific merchants each month. Or it could be getting total spend at specific merchants by a group of people in a specific zip code. Or Amazon could be getting my transactional data each month but coded to categories of merchants. Or Amazon could be told how much I’m spending on my card each month. Or Amazon could be getting a list of the merchants I spend money with and the total I spent but not how much I spent at each one.

Or does Amazon *just* get my name and how many Amazon points I racked up in the month?

I’d really like more specific information about what information is shared with Amazon, rather than statements that obfuscate what data is shared. Is that possible?

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“I’m afraid our statement is as far as I can go,” responded Rogers. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

The most frustrating thing about this exercise is that I think the answer is actually pretty boring, yet Amazon and Chase prefer to keep what happens with the data generated by their slate grey cards in a black box.

Unless we get more laws that give us the right to ask companies what they are doing with our data, like the one recently passed in California, black boxes like this one will remain the norm. Unfortunately, California’s law doesn’t go into effect until 2020, so I can’t use it to pry this particular box open yet.

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