On November 2, 2005, Amazon started a new service named Mechanical Turk. Named after a famous chess hoax involving a machine secretly operated by a midget chess master, Mechanical Turk lets users perform tasks of varying complexity, known as HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks), for varying amounts of money (usually on the order of a few pennies). A dedicated use of Mechanical Turk is very likely to earn significantly below minimum wage; users are officialy contractors, so this is not Amazon's problem.

I got bored a few weeks ago and decided to wander on to Mechanical Turk to see what there was to do. I didn't feel like doing podcast transcription, which took out about 3/4 of the things on offer; data entry was all that's left, and I soon found myself performing a very primitive sort of OCR for a photography company.

I soon became disillusioned with this. I didn't mind the significantly-less-than-minimum-wage rates I was making (around two cents per minute); I was upset by the content. No, this wasn't porn photograpy (I would have enjoyed that), this was just purchase orders for photo packages, most of which were yearbook photos or portraits of a childrens' sports team.

Every last one of them contained legal names, full street addresses, telephone numbers, and sometimes additional contact information- like e-mail addresses- for every person who placed an order. Here I had a wealth of personal information of total strangers- and I knew something else about them, too: whether or not they had children, and if those children were on a sports team, what kind of sport that was, and what team that was. This is creepy, stalker-y stuff. This is stuff I could have sold to a marketing agency for a lot more than the $0.02 I was being paid per HIT.

I was very, very tempted to call a few of these customers and warn them that all their contact information was out there on the Internet for anybody with an Amazon account (which is free) to see, sell, and use. I had their phone numbers, after all. I wonder what they'd think. I wonder what they'd do. I wonder what they'd do to me.

I never did it. I still wonder if I should.