Less than two weeks after announcing the acquisition of US healthcare company One Medical, Amazon continues its expansion with a $1.7 Billion Offer for iRobot, the manufacturer of Roomba automated vacuum cleaners.
The acquisition will bolster Amazon’s line of smart home products and contribute to the retail giant’s vast amount of consumer data. The move also raises a number of questions.
Why is Amazon doing this? Should we as consumers be concerned? What will Amazon do with yet another product that generates large amounts of data about its users?
The purchase seems like a natural fit for Amazon’s apparent plan to take the house. The tech giant already has a foothold in homes around the world, through its Alexa voice assistant system and products such as Echo smart speakers, Calling surveillance camerasand drones.
Amazon is already producing a “home monitoring” robot called Astroalthough it is sold “by invitation only”.
However, the purchase of iRobot can be less about products and more about data. That $1.7 billion price tag may seem like a lot, but Amazon not only gets iRobot’s wealth of consumer data, but also access to its existing fleet of constantly scanning robots.
iRobot agreed to be acquired by Amazon for $1.7 billion, according to a joint statement by the two companies. If the deal goes through, Amazon would gain access to yet another source of personal data: interior maps of Roomba owners’ homes. https://t.co/uK4o2BhUFr
— WIRED (@WIRED) August 5, 2022
Mapping our homes
Roombas collect a certain kind of data about customers – or more precisely, about their homes. While the original robot vacuums stumble around and dodge obstacles as best they can, the latest models are map users’ homes in detail.
This is great if you want your vacuum cleaner to clean your home autonomously and not fall down the stairs, but it raises some privacy concerns.
What about privacy?
A vacuum cleaner that takes care of the layout of your house isn’t very important in itself – it just makes it more efficient. But when the map data is stored in the cloud, we lose some control over it.
At this point, Roomba maps are theoretically only accessible through iRobot. But under Amazon’s ownership, we’re not sure who has access to the data? or how the data is used.
When asked about the potential uses and storage of card data, an Amazon spokesperson noted that the deal with iRobot hasn’t closed yet, so they don’t have the details to share.
They added that the company does not sell customer data to third parties or use customer data for purposes that customers have not consented to.
With the recent acquisition of One Medical, Amazon made very clear that medical data “would be treated separately from all other Amazon companies, as required by law”. However, it added:
Amazon never shares personal health information of One Medical customers outside of One Medical for advertising or marketing other Amazon products and services without clear customer consent.
“Clear consent” sounds good, but in practice, consumers routinely give “consent” to all sorts of activities that are only explained in lengthy and rarely read terms. In practice, this means that consent is often poorly informed.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise if one day Roomba users are asked to agree to a terms and conditions update allowing Amazon to use their home location data to better optimize products and services. Essentially to sell more stuff, or make other products work “better”.
While Roomba owners aren’t likely to see any significant change in the coming months, it’s very likely they’ll have updated user agreements in their email inboxes and apps soon.
While these may initially simply reflect the change in ownership and associated legal responsibilities, at some point we may also request data sharing.
Where could this take us? Well, smart homes might get a little smart (yes, there are some positives).
For example, if Roomba integrates with home cameras, it can automatically detect and clean up spills. Using location data, Roomba can make sure it’s done cleaning before the owner gets home from work.
Even home security systems could use future Roomba devices with cameras as sentries. (It’s probably best that iRobot sold his military division in 2016.)
While robots with weapons probably aren’t yet on Amazon’s product roadmap, the Roomba maps can give the company an even more granular picture of customers.
Where is all this going?
With smart speakers and cameras already listening and watching, massive amounts of consumer buying behavior monitored through its website and partners, and security systems integrated into our homes, Amazon already knows a lot about us.
In a black mirror-style extrapolating from the tech giant’s recent moves, can you imagine a future where Amazon’s health insurance (with a discount for Prime subscribers, of course) uses Ring cameras and Roomba to study your living conditions and behavior patterns, suggest interventions and price accordingly determines.
Amazon care (this already exists) can let you know it knows you haven’t taken a recommended trip to the gym because you’ve been home all day. Or maybe it’s a matter of diet – and the ever dutiful Amazon robotic lawnmower reported a pile of empty pizza boxes and beer bottles outside the bins.
For now, this is just a fantasy – but Amazon has most of the technology and data to make it a reality.
- 1 What happened?
- 2 Mapping our homes
- 3 What about privacy?
- 4 The future?
- 5 Where is all this going?