After decades of create war machines and home cleaning appliancesiRobot has agreed to be acquired by Amazon for $1.7 billion, according to a joint statement by both companies. If the deal goes through, it would give Amazon access to another source of personal data: interior maps of Roomba owners’ homes.
iRobot debuted building robots for the US military, but 20 years ago consumer vacuum cleaners were added to the mix. (It spun off the defense business altogether in 2016.) These Roombas operate in part by using sensors to map the homes in which they operate. In a 2017 Reuters interviewiRobot CEO Colin Angle has suggested that the company could one day share this data with tech companies developing smart home devices and AI assistants.
Combined with other recent acquisition targets, Amazon could end up with full insight into what’s going on inside people’s homes. The e-commerce giant has acquired a video doorbell company Ring in 2018 and Wi-Fi router manufacturer Eero one year later. Speakers and other devices with AI assistant Alexa can now control thousands of smart home devices, including Roomba vacuums. And Amazon plans to acquire primary care chain One Medical in a $3.49 billion all-cash deal, which, if approved, would put the health data of millions of people under its purview. keep.
“People tend to think of Amazon as an online retail company, but in reality, Amazon is a surveillance company. That’s the core of its business model, and that’s what drives its monopoly power and its profits,” says Evan Greer, director of the nonprofit digital rights organization Fight for the Future. “Amazon wants to have its hands everywhere, and the acquisition of a business that relies heavily on mapping the people’s homes seems like a natural extension of the surveillance reach Amazon already has.”
Amazon declined to answer questions about how it would use iRobot data, but company spokeswoman Alexandra Miller provided a statement saying the company had been a good handler of customer information. “Customer trust is something we have worked hard to earn – and work hard to keep – every day,” the statement said.
Amazon has a track record of manufacturing or acquiring technology that makes people concerned about data privacy uncomfortable. In 2020, Amazon launched a home security droneand last month Ring, a company that has partnered with thousands of police and fire departmentsadmitted to sharing personal video footage with law enforcement without warrant. If law enforcement or governments demand access, so much data about people in the hands of a single company threatens to be a single point of failure for democracy and human rights, says Rig.
The company already has its own home robot, Astro, which he introduced last fall. At the time, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, David Limp, said the company launched the robot without a defined use case. In an interview with WIRED in June, Amazon vice president of consumer robotics Ken Washington said the initial focus was on home surveillance and security.
Astro is currently only available by invitation. Washington declined to share the number of Astros in people’s homes today or when Astro will be made generally available. Since launch, Amazon has pushed an update to Astro that lets people add rooms to a house map without needing to remap an entire house.
Amazon’s home robots are currently unable to coordinate activity between multiple units, but Washington said climbing stairs and coordination between Astros on multiple floors is part of the product development roadmap. Rather than hoping for Astro to attract a mass audience, acquiring iRobot would give Amazon an instant home-mapping presence at scale.
It’s too early to tell, but the deal could come under scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission. Privacy advocates have already spoken out in their opposition, and FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan has sharply criticized acquisitions by big tech companies. The five-member commission cemented a 3-2 Democratic majority in May. And Khan herself has made herself known in particular after a Yale Law Journal article that reinvented antitrust law, with Amazon as its focal point.
Even without bringing iRobot into the fold, there are few aspects of people’s lives that Amazon doesn’t have access to. It already tracks intimate details like what people eat, buy, watch, read, and the prescription drugs they take. Soon he might also know every inch of their home.