- Amazon on Friday announced it acquired iRobot, the company that makes Roomba vacuums, for $1.7 billion.
- The deal prompted immediate concerns from data privacy experts and anti-trust researchers.
- “[People] don’t buy a Roomba to have a little robot … spying on the layout of your home,” said anti-trust researcher Ron Knox.
After Amazon on Friday acquired iRobot, the company that creates Roomba vacuums, data privacy experts and anti-trust researchers quickly raised alarms over the tech giant using the purchase to “vacuum up” personal information from inside users’ homes.
Advanced Roomba vacuums have internal mapping technology that learns the floor plan of users’ homes. The devices can also “adapt to and remember” up to 10 different floor plans “so users can carry their robot to another floor or a separate home, where the robot will recognize its location and clean as instructed,” according to press releases by iRobot. Some models have low-resolution cameras to avoid obstacles and aid in mapping.
“People tend to think of Amazon as an online seller company, but really Amazon is a surveillance company. That is the core of its business model, and that’s what drives its monopoly power and profit,” Evan Greer, director of the nonprofit digital rights organization Fight for the Future, told Wired. “Amazon wants to have its hands everywhere, and acquiring a company that’s essentially built on mapping the inside of people’s homes seems like a natural extension of the surveillance reach that Amazon already has.”
Ron Knox, senior researcher and writer for the Institute of Local Self-Reliance — a nonprofit dedicated to promoting small businesses and fighting corporate monopolies — said in a series of tweets after the acquisition was announced that the $1.7 billion deal, the fourth largest acquisition in Amazon’s portfolio, “may be the most dangerous, threatening acquisition in the company’s history.”
The acquisition, Knox told Insider, is uniquely dangerous for several reasons: First, Amazon will be acquiring an established market share, not a startup, which he said will cut off competition in a market that already isn’t competitive and can further Amazon’s market monopoly. Second, because of the massive amounts of data that comes with accessing iRobot’s established data sets, Amazon can collect new information through the robots.
“I think this feels really intrusive to people — and it should,” Knox told Insider. “Like, when people buy a Roomba, it’s because they want clean floors. They don’t buy a Roomba to have a little robot inside of your house spying on the layout of your home and whether or not you have a crib in your house or whether or not there are pet toys and a pet bed in a room of your house. So then it can funnel that information to Amazon and Amazon can push whatever dog toy ads to you the next time you log on.”
Amazon declined an interview with Insider about potential data privacy concerns, but indicated the company doesn’t sell consumer data to third parties or use it for purposes customers “haven’t consented to.”
“Protecting customer data has always been incredibly important to Amazon, and we think we’ve been very good stewards of peoples’ data across all of our businesses,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement emailed to Insider. “Customer trust is something we have worked hard to earn —and work hard to keep— every day.”
Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer rights advocacy group, argues that federal regulators should prevent Amazon’s purchase of iRobot, citing additional concerns over the company’s current 56.7% market share.
“The last thing American and the world needs is Amazon vacuuming up even more of our personal information,” Weissman said in a statement. “This is not just about Amazon selling another device in its marketplace. It’s about the company gaining still more intimate details of our lives to gain unfair market advantage and sell us more stuff.”
The deal has not yet been approved by US Federal Trade Commission regulators, who could possibly terminate the deal under antitrust laws.
The Roomba deal isn’t the only recent Amazon acquisition to raise privacy concerns. The announcement comes less than a month after Amazon announced a $3.9 billion deal to acquire One Medical — which itself prompted worries about privacy due to the nature of medical data being collected.
Ring, the company’s surveillance security doorbell — that partners with thousands of police departments — admitted in a letter to Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey last month it has shared with law enforcement home video footage taken from 11 different customers’ residences without warrants, Politico reported.
“When the company that has its cameras and microphones in your speakers, your doorbell, your security cameras tries to buy the company that knows the shape and contents of your home, it’s bad in all the ways,” Knox said.
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