Amazon’s iRobot deal would give it maps inside millions of homes

After decades of creating war machines Y household cleaning appliancesiRobot agreed to be acquired by Amazon for $1.7 billion, according to a joint declaration by the two companies. If the deal goes through, it would 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 vacuum cleaners to the mix. (It spun off from the defense business altogether in 2016.) Those Roombas work in part by using sensors to map the homes in which they operate. In a 2017 Reuters interviewiRobot CEO Colin Angle suggested the company could one day share that data with tech companies developing smart home devices and AI assistants.

Combined with other recent acquisition targets, Amazon could end up with a holistic view of what goes on inside people’s homes. The e-commerce giant acquired the video door entry company ring in 2018 and Wi-Fi router manufacturer I’m a year later. Speakers and other devices with AI assistant Alexa you 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 in its possession.

“People tend to think of Amazon as an online retail company, but actually Amazon is a surveillance company. That’s at the core of their business model, and that’s what drives their monopoly power and profits,” says Evan Greer, director of the nonprofit digital rights organization Fight for the Future. “Amazon wants to get its hands everywhere, and acquiring a company that is essentially based on mapping the insides of 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 steward of customer information. “Customer trust is something we have worked hard to earn, and work hard to maintain, every day,” the statement said.

Amazon has a history of making or acquiring technology that worries those concerned about data privacy. In 2020, Amazon introduced a home security droneand last month Ring, a company that forged partnerships with thousands of police and fire departmentsadmitted to sharing home video footage with police without court order. Should law enforcement or governments demand access, so much data about people in the hands of a single company poses the threat of being a single point of failure for democracy and human rights, says Greer.

The company already has its own. domestic robot, Astro, which he introduced last fall. At the time, Amazon senior vice president of devices and services David Limp said the company released the robot without a defined use case. In an interview with WIRED in June, Amazon’s vice president of consumer robotics Ken Washington said the initial focus is home monitoring and security.

Astro is currently only available by invitation. Washington declined to share the number of Astro in people’s homes today or when Astro will be generally available. Since launch, Amazon has pushed an update to Astro that allows people to add rooms to a starter map without the need to remap an entire home.

Amazon’s home robots currently can’t coordinate activity between multiple units, but Washington said stair climbing and coordination between Astros on multiple floors are part of the product development roadmap. Rather than expect Astro to reach a mass audience, the iRobot acquisition would give Amazon an instant, large-scale home mapping presence.

It’s too early to tell, but the deal could face scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission. Privacy advocates have already voiced their opposition, and FTC Chair Lina Khan has been a vocal critic of big tech takeovers. The five-member commission consolidated a 3-2 Democratic majority in May. Y Khan herself rose to fame notably after Yale Law Review article that reinvented antitrust law, with Amazon as the central focus.

Even without incorporating iRobot, 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, you will be able to know every inch of their homes too.

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