After pressure from consumer groups, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is looking more deeply into Amazon's proposed $1.7 billion acquisition of iRobot, maker of the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner.
It has requested further information from both companies as part of its antitrust investigation into the potential effects of the deal on Amazon's market power – not just in terms of its share of the robot vacuum market or even the connected device market, but also the retail market as a whole.
Hoovering up data
The reason? Data. Campaigners are concerned about just how much information this will give Amazon, which already knows a huge amount about its customers – information that it could then use to dominate.
Roomba robots scan the rooms they're cleaning, learning their size and shape, as well as the position of furniture. Some models - though not all - even have cameras. Critics of the deal suggest that this would give the company unprecedented access to information such as home layouts, furnishing choices, and lifestyle that could help its e-commerce business sell even more products.
"Amazon owning and selling the Roomba would be incredibly dangerous. It would threaten our privacy, especially the rights of domestic workers, and add an additional layer to Amazon’s smart home surveillance ecosystem, which already records us, tracks us, and monitors just about everything we do," says Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future.
"Of course Amazon wants to acquire a company that maps out the inside of our homes. It already has devices that listen to everything we say and record everything we do. With Roomba, it adds another level of surveillance to its invasive smart home surveillance ecosystem, giving the company an even greater opportunity to exploit our daily lives for profit."
Amazon says it doesn’t sell customer data to third parties or use it for purposes that customers haven’t consented to.
"Protecting customer data has always been incredibly important to Amazon, and we think we’ve been very good stewards of peoples’ data across all of our businesses. Customer trust is something we have worked hard to earn, and work hard to keep, every day," says a spokesperson.
Meanwhile, the Roomba currently deletes mapping data after every run.
Amazon knows it all already
And how much information, really, would Amazon actually gain by being able to look through a robot vacuum cleaner's eyes? Most home floorplans are already publicly available, and it's hard to see how the position of furniture could tell the company a great deal about residents.
Indeed, through Ring doorbells, Alexa home assistants, and plain online Amazon shopping, the company already has far more extensive and reliable data on its customers' buying habits and product needs.
However, the antitrust implications of the proposed purchase are very real. iRobot already has more than half the robot vacuum cleaner market, way ahead of the rest of the competition.
And Amazon has clear ambitions to dominate the smart home market in general, through Alexa, Echo, the Ring doorbell and a plethora of other products.
Amazon also has significant plans in the robotics arena, which could benefit from iRobots' AI and machine learning technology. The company is working hard on warehouse robots: it recently bought another robot specialist, Cloostermans, in support of this effort. It has also developed a domestic robot called Astro, currently only available through invitation - and rather on the light side in terms of actual function.
In fact, anybody worried about Amazon's control over personal data should be far more concerned about the company's proposed $3.9 billion takeover of One Medical, a subscription healthcare provider with 767,000 members. This acquisition, too, is under investigation by the FTC.
Amazon has long been working to get into the healthcare market, and this deal would give it access to data of a far more sensitive – and monetizable – sort.
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