- Sabrina Kutscher
Amazon Buys iRobot: Will Roombas Become the Secret Spies in Our Own Houses?
Earlier this month, Amazon announced that it had acquired iRobot, the company that invented the Roomba, for $ 1.7 billion. This constitutes the fourth largest acquisition on Amazon’s portfolio even though iRobot faced a significant loss in revenues ever since the Covid-19 pandemic started. Nevertheless, many see this recent purchase not only as a smart investment, but also as a potential reason for concern regarding Amazon’s future plans for the company. Especially privacy advocates warn of completely new avenues that have opened up for Amazon to collect and analyze data of its customers.
Amazon’s goal has always been to go beyond just offering a mere online marketplace. This has crystalized more recently as the company started to develop a fully automated home-experience for its customers. Alexa, the virtual voice assistance, can be considered the first step in this endeavor. Amazon then went on to acquire Ring, a home security company, as well as the smart door company Bling. Now with the purchase of the manufacturer of the Roomba, Amazon sought the opportunity to diversify its services in the robotics industry and offer smart devices to the average consumer. According to Adam Wright, a market researcher at IDC, people are generally more likely to purchase devices from the same brand which means in this case that Amazon is able to expand its presence in private homes with the help of its products.
Although these developments sound exciting at first, as they allow people to live more comfortably in their smart homes, many experts are wary and point out that it could come with significant privacy risks. So let’s discuss why some call this recent purchase “the most dangerous, threatening acquisition in the company’s history” and assess whether this is just mere exaggeration or really something to worry about.
The Roomba - Just a Useful Smart Device?
To most people it is obvious what the Roomba is supposed to be doing: vacuuming your house or apartment without you having to do anything. This sounds very straightforward, but most people don’t actually question how this little machine is able to do what it is doing. In order to be cleaning our houses and apartments, Roombas have to map out the entire floor plan of our homes. This is usually done with sensors, or in some cases low-resolution cameras. As such, many privacy advocates claim that Amazon’s priority isn’t necessarily to invest into a relatively successful product, but its potential of gathering your data. Some might think that there might not be much value in such data, but in fact knowing of the size of one’s home as well as the furniture and general belongings gives a great deal of information about a person, which is highly valuable for marketing purposes. Especially in combination with other products that Amazon acquired, such as the smart doorbell system Ring, or its Echo smart speakers, a breadth of information can be available for analysis and profiling purposes. Some even go as far as to say that instead of being an online market place, Amazon should be considered a surveillance company - its goal being to understand customers better and use that information to nudge them into buying more. In light of these concerns, it becomes clear why so many people have spoken against this acquisition.
Privacy Under Attack?
Of course, like every other company, even Amazon will have to respect privacy standards. Currently regulators are still assessing whether the two companies meet certain criteria before the acquisition can be completed. Amazon’s track record also isn’t too positive after it made headlines in 2019 by employing people to transcribe voice commands directed at Alexa without its users being aware of such practices. Luckily, in the EU, we have stronger regulatory mechanisms than the US, which further protects consumers. Last year, Luxembourg’s Data Protection Agency imposed the largest fine so far of € 746 million for GDPR violations committed by Amazon for unlawful processing of personal information. In light of this, it is to be expected that Amazon will be very careful in processing EU citizen’s information for fear of another hefty fine. Therefore, while we can expect better privacy protection in the EU, it is still important to be wary of the ability of smart devices to collect information. In other words, better EU-wide privacy protection does not mitigate the fact that data is being gathered on a growing scale by means of IoT devices. Meanwhile, this means that data leaks or hacks, which continue to be a risk for all online users, will potentially contain increasing amounts of user data in the future. This means that it is crucial to remain aware of the types of devices introduced to households and their abilities to collect personal information.