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Amazon’s Response Raises Security Questions

Jim Burroway

April 14th, 2009

Amazon’s de-ranking of LGBT-themed books generated a host of competing theories of what happened. Amazon’s first response to inquiries, which labeled LGBT books as “‘adult’ material,” suggested that the de-ranking was intentional. That response was followed by another one, blaming the whole mishap on a “glitch,” a dubious term that continues to be inserted inside of quotation marks everywhere.

Meanwhile theories have flooded the ‘net, with some suggesting that it was the result of a coordinated outside attack by shadowy anti-gay groups “flagging” LGBT-themed books for objectionable content and watching Amazon’s automated systems taking over from there. There was even one hacker claiming credit for the chaos.

But now more recent statements from Amazon officials and Amazon insiders sheds more light on the “glitch.” Here is their official respons

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

The Seattle Stranger blog has more inside information, indicating that it was a badly written and tested piece of code that was inserted into Amazon’s software. Apparently, the French software developer mixed up “adult” with “erotic” and “sexuality,” and that ended up garbling the whole thing. As a software developer myself, I can see how this sort of thing can happen when there is little oversight in testing candidate code changes.

But that is worrisome. Responsible and well-managed software outfits always make sure there are proper peer reviews and rigorous software testing before software is released for public use. A bug like this could have been easily detected during peer reviews, and should have been caught during software regression test. Neither of these two very fundamental steps, it appears, were taken. Or if they were performed — and I have a very hard time imagining a peer review letting this sort of error go undetected — they were performed poorly.

So if this explanation pans out, then Amazon conceivably has a much larger, more systematic problem on their hands. If their software can be screwed up this badly by one developer, and that screw-up can make it into released code without adequate testing, then what other problems are lurking undetected? Are our credit cards secure? What about our book purchases, or even the books that we look up online? In other words, what expectations do we have that Amazon can actually maintain their own meager privacy policy, such as it is?

And it’s not just Amazon customers who should be concerned. Amazon Associates, publishers, and used bookstores all trust Amazon with financial transactions. Bookstores, in addition, trust Amazon to properly list and promote their inventory as well. What assurances do they have that a similar “glitch” won’t adversely affect their businesses?

It would almost be better for Amazon, its customers, and associate businesses and individuals if this whole episode had been an anti-gay conspiracy.

Comments

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David C.
April 14th, 2009 | LINK

We’ll probably not be privy to a postmortem on this defect and its consequences, though it would help all us tech-weenies to know what happened.

I’d refrain from getting too paranoid about this until the rest of the facts come out. The technical mishandling of a few classification terms is small potatoes in the larger scheme of things, especially if the blunder was a simple Business user error.

Until we know the facts, let’s not start sounding like the Religious Right and making everything into a federal case.

Erica
April 14th, 2009 | LINK

I still don’t understand the translation problem — ok, Heather Has Two Mommies goes Sexuality->Erotica, but why wasn’t Playboy Centerfold whatever classed as Erotica to begin with?

Regardless, I will accept there was a coding problem, but I do NOT want to buy from an online seller with infrastructure that weak. (The fact that their whole search structure is based on “sales rank” and books can’t be found if they’re missing that key feature is pretty bizarre coding anyway.)

Laura
April 14th, 2009 | LINK

The fact is that this error probably exposed some missing regression tests – which I’d hope is being addressed. Unfortunately, as these systems become more and more complex, bugs become inevitable – especially in the new agile form of software development where developers are expected to produce deployable software within a few weeks and without thorough design and analysis.

Although this issue probably hurt some authors and publishers, at least there was no secure information leaked. In security terms, its better to block information then let too much out.

jim
April 15th, 2009 | LINK

You forget that many (if not most) commercial companies don’t support “peer reviews” of software, since it’s costly and lengthens the amount of time to market. This has been going on for years – where people would just hack some code and release it without testing. Windows 95 comes to mind… LOL

CLS
April 15th, 2009 | LINK

Amazon has a tendency to give answers that don’t make sense in many areas. And this doesn’t make sense. I can understand that someone might put “adult,” “erotic” and “sexuality” into the same category and that would cause confusion. But what I don’t get is how that confusion still only applied to gay titles and not to some very adult, erotic, sexual books for heterosexuals.

Wouldn’t there need to be more than this to explain why non-erotic, non-adult, non-sexual gay titles were blocked while very adult, very erotic, very sexual straight titles were not?

Kimberly Saunders
April 16th, 2009 | LINK

I don’t care much for people who see conspiracies at every turn, but it’s so hard to believe this was an honest mistake because Amazon has issued multiple explanations, and because if it was a software mistake, it should have been caught in testing–that’s a pretty big thing to miss, and for so long.

To make matters worse, the list of books that were affected are exactly the kinds of materials that fundamentalist radicals are constantly going after. I have Christian fundamentalist family members who are part of an organization that years ago was able to pressure Block Buster into dropping movie titles they found offensive, and to start editing the content of other movies it carried without notifying consumers. Amazon is the Block Buster of its day.

I’m not spending any more money on Amazon.com until I am satisfied that they are not bending to the will of some “family values” organization.

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