This would be a hilarious story if it weren’t true. Unfortunately for everyone… it is.
If you’ve ever shopped for anything on Amazon you’re almost certainly familiar with the site’s recommendation tool. Either while browsing or after you select a purchase, Amazon’s almost artificial intelligence level algorithm goes to work and informs you that, “Customers who purchased this also bought…” followed by a list of offers which may or may not have any relevance to what you’re looking for. It’s a hit and miss system, but I’ll confess they’ve gotten me to make a few impulse buys over the years.
But now the artificial brain behind the machine has been learning some things the owners would definitely prefer it didn’t. Channel 4 News in the UK discovered that if you order any of several seemingly harmless items which can also be put to nefarious purposes, the Amazon algorithm will helpfully fill in the blanks and offer you the rest of the shopping list you’ll need to build… a bomb.
Channel 4 News has discovered that Amazon’s algorithm guides users to the necessary chemical combinations for producing explosives and incendiary devices. Ingredients which are innocent on their own are suggested for purchase together as “Frequently bought together” products, as it does with all other goods.
Ingredients for black powder and thermite are grouped together under a “Frequently bought together” section on listings for specific chemicals.
Steel ball bearings often used as shrapnel in explosive devices, ignition systems and remote detonators are also readily available; some promoted by the website on the same page as these chemicals as products that “Customers who bought this item also bought”.
Right off the bat I want to say that I’m not suggesting that Amazon is intentionally trying to help terrorists and I hope nobody else is either. What we’re seeing here is a smart web application that tracks the things that are most often shopped for together and offeris those items as choices in the hopes of making more sales. If you’re looking for a flashlight it will probably offer you a deal on batteries. You get the idea.
What’s far more disturbing is that the algorithm had to have picked this up from somewhere and a single transaction wouldn’t do it. Honestly, I’m kind of shocked that you can buy everything you need for a bomb on their site to begin with, but apparently there were enough people assembling all of the elements for the algorithm to detect a pattern and begin making suggestions based on those purchases.
In a way it’s kind of a shame that this story went public. If those shopping patterns have emerged, Amazon could actually perform a service to the world if, rather than filling up the shopping cart entirely, their program fired off an alert which management could send to the FBI, DHS or their counterparts in whichever country the order is coming from. Yes, I’m sure that the Libertarians will be up in arms just at the suggestion, but with the stakes this high, who cares? If somebody is placing a single order for all the fixings for black powder and thermite, plus ball bearings, igniter cord and an electronic ignition system (all of which were on the list when Channel 4 News checked it) then somebody needs to know about it.
Exit question: If you actually did order all of the items they suggested, would the site offer you an ISIS flag? Naw. Surely they draw the line somewhere.