Amazon iRobot deal will give it maps of millions of homes
after decades of By creating war machines and household cleaning devices, iRobot has agreed to be acquired by Amazon for $1.7 billion, according to a joint statement from the two companies. If the deal goes through, it will give Amazon access to another source of personal data: indoor maps of Roomba owners’ homes.
iRobot started building robots for the US military, but 20 years ago it added consumer vacuums to the mix. (They sprang out of the entirely defensive business in 2016.) Those Roombas operate in part by using sensors to map the homes they operate in. In a 2017 interview with Reuters, iRobot CEO Colin Angle suggested that the company might one day share this data with tech companies developing smart home devices and artificial intelligence aids.
Combined with other recent acquisition targets, Amazon could end up with a comprehensive look at what’s going on inside people’s homes. The e-commerce giant acquired video company Ring in 2018 and the maker of Wi-Fi Eero routers a year later. Speakers and other devices with an AI assistant Alexa can now control thousands of smart home devices, including the Roomba vacuum. Amazon plans to acquire primary care chain One Medical in a $3.49 billion cash deal, which if approved would put the health data of millions into its possession.
People tend to think of Amazon as an online selling company, but in fact Amazon is a watch company. That’s the core of its business model, and that’s what drives its monopoly power and profits,” says Evan Greer, director of the digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future. Maps inside people’s homes is a natural extension of the surveillance scope that Amazon already has.”
Amazon declined to respond to questions about how iRobot’s data was used, but company spokeswoman Alexandra Miller provided a statement that claimed the company was a good proxy for customer information. “Customer trust is something we’ve worked hard to earn – and work hard to maintain – every day,” the statement said.
Amazon has a proven track record of making or acquiring technology that makes those concerned with data privacy uncomfortable. In 2020, Amazon introduced a home security drone, and last month Ring, a company that has partnered with thousands of police and fire departments, admitted sharing home video footage with law enforcement without a warrant. If law enforcement or governments demand access, too much data about people in the hands of one company threatens to be a single point of failure for democracy and human rights, says Greer.
The company already has its own home robot, Astro, which it introduced last fall. At the time, Amazon Senior Vice President of Devices and Services David Limp said the company launched the bot without a specific use case. In an interview with WIRED in June, Amazon Vice President of Consumer Robotics Ken Washington said the initial focus is home monitoring and security.
Astro is currently available only by invitation. Washington declined to share the Astro number in people’s homes today or when Astro is generally provided. Since launch, Amazon has pushed an update to Astro that allows people to add rooms to a home map without having to re-plan an entire home.
Amazon’s home bots can’t currently coordinate activity between multiple units, but Washington said climbing stairs and coordinating the Astros on multiple floors is part of the product development roadmap. Rather than hoping Astro will go viral, the acquisition of iRobot would give Amazon an immediate presence for large-scale home mapping.
It’s too soon to tell, but the deal could face scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission. Privacy advocates have already been vocal in their opposition, and Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan has been highly critical of acquisitions by big tech companies. The five-member panel consolidated a 3-2 Democratic majority in May. Khan herself has emerged significantly after a Yale Law Journal An article that reimagined antitrust law – with Amazon in the center.
Even without bringing iRobot into the fold, there are a few aspects of people’s lives that Amazon can’t get into. It actually keeps track of intimate details like what people eat, buy, watch, read, and which medications they take. Soon, he might as well know every inch of their home.