Amazon's human resources team is tracking opioid usage among the American public as part of a project which involves monitoring internal and external threats to Amazon's employees and business, according to an internal document obtained by Motherboard.
The document details an Amazon data visualization project, known as "SPOC," (geoSPatial Operating Console), run by Amazon's corporate human resource team, which monitors many data points, such as weather, crime rate, and the local political environment, and inputs this data into a mapping system to keeps tabs on threats to the company.
The project taken as a whole seems from the outside to be an attempt for Amazon—a gigantic logistics company that operates all over the country—to understand as much as possible about every part of the United States.
An Amazon spokesperson would not offer any specific information about why Amazon monitors opioid use, saying it tracks any number of factors that could be impacting employees and workers in order to keep them safe, but some drug experts told Motherboard that the revelation that Amazon tracked opioid use was a cause for alarm to its workers and customers.
"This is news to me, and it's disturbing," said Shannon Monnat, a sociology professor at Syracuse University who does research on opioid use. "I asked around to other drug experts I know, and none of them knew this was happening. I am a bit shocked but shouldn't be. Corporations increasingly have access to a litany of data and know more about us than anyone else."
Some speculated that Amazon could be analyzing this data to decide where to open warehouses, how frequently to drug test workers, and other concerns about its workforce.
Corey Davis, an opioids expert at the Network for Public Health Law, said, "I can only speculate. They may be trying to determine whether there are likely enough people in the area they're considering locating a warehouse or other facility who can pass a drug test."
"I've heard anecdotes from other industries that routinely drug test (as I assume Amazon does) that this can be a problem in some areas," he continued. "They may also be using it as a partial measure of able-bodied workers in the area."
Experts also suggested Amazon could be using the data to determine what areas to monitor for package theft and other crimes that could disrupt its delivery system. Opioid use data is frequently used as a proxy for illicit opioid addiction, theft, and other crimes.
"There may be an assumption that addiction rates are correlated with package theft at the point of delivery," Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health science and opioid expert at Northeastern University, said. "There's been some chatter about this, especially on NextDoor and Ring networks. Addiction rates and opioid use should not be conflated but they often are. Opioid use and criminality should not be conflated. But they often are," he added, referring to Neighbors, an Amazon-owned community surveillance network tied to its Ring cameras and NextDoor, a neighborhood-by-neighborhood based social network that has suffered from racism and fearmongering.
At the same time, the revelation that Amazon collects this data on opioid usage isn't a shocker. As one of the largest tech companies on the planet, we already know that Amazon obsessively collects all kinds of data related to its workers, its customers, and the social and political situations in communities all over the country. Amazon uses tools such as navigation software, wristbands, security and thermal cameras, and scanners to track warehouse and delivery workers productivity and whereabouts. Meanwhile, as Motherboard recently reported, it monitors the social media activities of its Amazon Flex Drivers.
According to drug experts, many large companies and government institutions, from tech companies to the U.S. military to the U.S. Postal Service, monitor opioid usage and overdose data for a range of reasons.
For example, the USPS, alongside Duke University, is currently working on a project using opioid data to monitor illicitly manufactured opioids such as fentanyl and heroin that are sent through the mail, by tracking residue on envelopes.
Meanwhile, at least one major grocery store chain, Meijer, requested this data to inform its pharmacists in areas with rates of opioid addiction, according to Nabarun Dasgupta, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who conducts research using opioid data and frequently receives requests from companies and institutions for help utilizing data. "The pharmacists already know that's happening locally, and the grocery store chain who requested data ended up not using it because the data was already known," he said.
Dasgupta says he's also received requests from logistics companies looking to use opioid data to monitor for potential lawsuits in their last mile delivery. Tech travel companies use opioid data, as well as data about coups and civil unrest, to advise corporate clients about risks involved in travelling to different regions of the world.
In other words, Amazon, as a company that has delved into nearly every industry and part of our lives, could be using this data for many of these purposes, to monitor its workers or customers, to protect itself from legal trouble, or simply because it wants lots of data.
"One reason why I've heard other logistics and transportation folks use opioid use data is that it's a popular topic, and they want data sets in kind of a data science ingest everything mode," Dasgupta said. "It's just another data point people want. This is just one small drop in a big data bucket."
While some data about opioid use is available through the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and state databases, much of it is heavily guarded and unavailable for anonymized public search. Many companies often pay hefty sums for access to prescription data from commercial data vendors such as IQVIA, which tracks the prescriptions that are dispensed through an electronic gateway. This data too is heavily guarded.
Correction: This article wrongly stated that opioids expert Nabarun Dasgupta could not disclose the name of the grocery store chain that requested opioid data. The name of the grocery store chain is Meijer. Motherboard regrets the error.