Security

Amazon admits it exposed customer email addresses, but refuses to give details

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Amazon’s renowned secrecy encompasses its response to a new security issue, withholding info that could help victims protect themselves.

Amazon emailed users Tuesday, warning them that it exposed an unknown number of customer email addresses after a “technical error” on its website.

When reached for comment, an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch that the issue exposed names as well as email addresses. “We have fixed the issue and informed customers who may have been impacted.” The company emailed all impacted users to be cautious.

In response to a request for specifics, a spokesperson said the company had “nothing to add beyond our statement.” The company denies there was a data breach of its website of any of its systems, and says it’s fixed the issue, but dismissed our request for more info including the cause, scale and circumstances of the error.

Amazon’s reticence here puts those impacted at greater risk. Users don’t know which of Amazon’s sites was impacted, who their email address could have been exposed to, or any ballpark figure of the number of victims. It’s also unclear whether it has or plans to contact any government regulatory bodies.

“We’re contacting you to let you know that our website inadvertently disclosed your email address due to a technical error,” said Amazon in the email with the subject line: “Important Information about your Amazon.com Account.” The only details Amazon provided were that: “The issue has been fixed. This is not a result of anything you have done, and there is no need for you to change your password or take any other action.”

The security lapse comes days ahead of one of the busiest retail days of the year, the post-Thanksgiving holiday sales day, Black Friday. The issue could scare users away from Amazon, which could be problematic for revenue if the issue impacted a wide number of users just before the heavy shopping day.

Amazon’s vague and non-specific email also sparked criticism from users — including security experts — who accused the company of withholding information. Some said that the correspondence looked like a phishing email, used to trick customers into turning over account information.

Customers in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe have reported receiving an email from Amazon.

Amazon, as a Washington-based company, is required to inform the state attorney general of data incidents involving 500 state residents or more. Yet, in Europe, where data protection rules are stronger — even in the wake of the recently introduced General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — it’s less clear if Amazon needs to disclose the incident.

The U.K.’s data protection regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office, told TechCrunch: “Under the GDPR, organizations must assess if a breach should be reported to the ICO, or to the equivalent supervisory body if they are not based in the UK.”

“It is always the company’s responsibility to identify when UK citizens have been affected as part of a data breach and take steps to reduce any harm to consumers,” a spokesperson said. “The ICO will however continue to monitor the situation and cooperate with other supervisory authorities where required.”

To continue earning our trust, technology companies need to be forthcoming and transparent when security problems arise. Not only does that provide victims with the maximum amount of information they can use to recover and avoid future problems, but it also gives users confidence that their data is being responsibly managed no matter what happens.

People fear what they don’t understand, and for now, Amazon is failing to help the public understand what happened.

TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas contributed to this report.

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