Privacy and antitrust experts voice concerns over Amazon’s Roomba acquisition

Data privacy and antitrust advocates have raised concerns over Amazon’s acquisition of iRobot, the maker of Roomba vacuums, warning that the company could use the deal to collect even more personal data from consumers’ homes.

Amazon said last week that it will be purchasing iRobot in an all-cash transaction for around $1.7 billion.

Following on the heels of its $4 billion purchase of healthcare business One Medical last month, it will be Amazon’s fourth-largest acquisition.

According to industry database Statista, iRobot’s Roomba has a 75% revenue market share in the US for smart vacuums. Last autumn, Amazon also launched its own product, The Astro, a $1,450 three-wheeled gadget that is yet to generate much interest among customers.

Advanced Roomba vacuums, according to iRobot, include inbuilt mapping technology that can learn a user’s home’s floor layout.

The gadgets can also adapt to and memorise up to 10 different floor layouts, allowing customers to move their robot to a different level or house and have it follow their instructions to clean there.

With Alexa, Amazon dominates the smart speaker market, while its Ring brand sells more video doorbells than any other firm in the world.

The acquisition of Roomba is a natural extension of Amazon’s big goals, with many industry experts believing that Amazon’s primary aim is to eliminate its biggest competitor in this specific market.

This has alarmed organisations concerned about the growing power of large corporations as well as those worried about privacy and surveillance.

“Buying what is your biggest competitor should be an antitrust violation,” said Sarah Miller, executive director of the anti-monopoly advocacy organisation American Economic Liberties Project

While most people think of Amazon as an online retailer, in reality, “Amazon is a surveillance firm,” Evan Greer, the director of the non-profit digital rights group Fight for the Future told Wired.

“That is the core of its business model, and that’s what drives its monopoly power and profit.”

Antitrust experts believe that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), chaired by Lina Khan, may conduct a thorough investigation of the purchase.

To block the merger, the FTC would likely have to make the challenging argument that the purchase may significantly reduce competition in the smart vacuum market, a difficult case to make at the moment.

The deal could represent a significant risk to customer privacy. Roomba can map out customers’ homes’ floor layouts and, in theory, could send that information back to Amazon’s corporate offices.

Privacy advocates warn that Amazon may be able to determine users’ family status or level of income based on the size of their home, and then more directly target users with ads.

It “may be the most dangerous, threatening acquisition in the company’s history,” said Ron Knox, a senior researcher and writer with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Amazon could augment its existing knowledge of users’ homes with the enormous quantity of data in iRobot’s established datasets, as well as new data from the Roomba devices.

Amazon has sought to play down the privacy issue.

Spokesperson Alexandra Miller said in a statement that “protecting customer data has always been incredibly important to Amazon,” and the company thinks, they have been “very good stewards of peoples’ data across all of our businesses.”

She added: “Customer trust is something we have worked hard to earn —and work hard to keep— every day.”


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