Less than two weeks after the US health care company announced its acquisition of One Medical, Amazon continued its expansion by offering $1.7 billion for iRobot, maker of the Roomba automated vacuum cleaners.
The acquisition will strengthen Amazon’s line of smart home products and add to the retail giant’s consumer portfolio. The move also raised several questions.
Why does Amazon do this? Should we as consumers be concerned? What will Amazon do with another product that generates massive amounts of data about its users?
The acquisition seems like a natural fit for Amazon’s apparent plan to conquer the home. The tech giant has a presence in homes around the world with its Alexa voice assistant system and products like Echo smart speakers, Ring surveillance cameras and drones.
Amazon has already produced a “home monitoring” robot called Astro, although it is already sold “by invitation”.
However, the iRobot acquisition may be less about products and more about data. That US$1.7 billion price tag may sound like a lot, but Amazon has access to not only the amount of consumer data available to the robot, but also to its existing fleet of robots that regularly scan.
The two companies announced in a joint statement that they have agreed to buy iRobot from Amazon for $1.7 billion. If the deal goes through, it will give Amazon access to another source of private data: interior maps of Roomba owners’ homes. https://t.co/uK4o2BhUFr
— The Wire (@WIRED) August 5, 2022
Showing off our homes
Roombas collect specific information about customers – or, to be more precise, their homes. While the first robot vacuum cleaners struggled to remove obstacles as much as possible, the latest models show users’ homes in detail.
This is great if you want your vacuum cleaner to clean your house autonomously and not fall off the stairs – but it raises a number of privacy concerns.
What about privacy?
A vacuum cleaner that cleans your home isn’t much of a concern in itself – it simply makes it more efficient. But when map data is stored in the cloud, we lose some control over them.
Currently, Roomba’s maps are, in theory, only accessible by iRobot. But under Amazon’s ownership, we cannot be sure who has access to the data or how the data is used.
When asked about the use and storage of map data, an Amazon spokesperson said the deal had not yet been closed with iRobot and had no details to share.
He added that the company does not sell customer information to third parties or use customer information for purposes not authorized by the customer.
In a recent medical audit, Amazon made it clear that medical information “will be handled separately from all Amazon businesses to the extent permitted by law.” But he added:
Amazon will not share the personal health information of a medical customer outside of a medical practice for advertising or marketing purposes for other Amazon products and services without the express consent of the customer.
“Explicit consent” sounds good, but in practice, consumers give “consent” to all kinds of activities under long and poorly read terms and conditions. In practice, this means that consent is often poorly understood.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Roomba users will one day be asked to agree to update the terms and conditions under which they license Amazon’s home location data to optimize products and services. Basically, to sell more things, or to make other products work “better”.
in the future?
While Roomba owners aren’t likely to see any significant changes in the coming months, they’ll soon be able to hit their email inboxes and apps to update the user agreements.
While these primarily reflect changes in ownership and related legal responsibilities, we may also sometimes see requests for data sharing.
Where can this take us? Well, smart homes can actually be a little smarter (yes, there are some positives).
If Roomba is integrated with in-home cameras, for example, 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 can use future Roomba devices with cameras as monitors. (iRobot sold its military unit for good in 2016.)
While gun-toting robots may not yet be on Amazon’s product roadmap, Roomba’s maps could give the company a more detailed view of its customers.
Where is all this going?
With smart speakers and cameras listening and watching, massive amounts of consumer shopping behavior tracking through its website and its partners, and security systems integrated into our homes, Amazon knows a lot about us.
In the latest moves from the Black Mirror-style tech giant, you can imagine when Amazon’s health insurance (discounted to premium subscribers, naturally) uses ring cameras and Roomba to study your lifestyle and behavior and suggest and coordinate interventions. Prices accordingly.
Amazon Care (which already exists) may know that you haven’t taken the recommended trip to the gym because you’ve been home all day. Or maybe it’s a question of nutrition – and Amazon’s ever-busy robotic lawnmower has empty pizza boxes and beer bottles stacked outside its bins.
For now, this is just a fantasy — but Amazon has most of the technology and data at its disposal to make it a reality.
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