After decades iRobot, which makes machines of war and household cleaning equipment, agreed to be acquired by Amazon for $1.7 billion, according to a joint statement from the two companies. If the deal goes through, Amazon will get another source of personal data: an internal map of Roomba owners’ homes.
iRobot started out making robots for the U.S. military, but added consumer vacuums 20 years ago. (It spun off the defense business entirely in 2016.) Part of what these Roombas do is use sensors to map the homes they operate. In a 2017 Reuters interview, iRobot CEO Colin Unger suggested the company might one day share this data with tech companies in development. Smart home devices and AI assistants.
Amazon declined to answer questions about how it uses the data, but combined with other recent acquisition targets, the company may finally get a full picture of what’s going on in people’s homes. The e-commerce giant bought video doorbell company Ring in 2018 and Wi-Fi router maker Eero a year later. Speakers and other devices with artificial intelligence assistant Alexa can now control thousands of smart home devices, including Roomba vacuums. Amazon plans to buy primary care chain One Medical for $3.49 billion in an all-cash deal that, if approved, would store millions of health data.
“People tend to think of Amazon as an online seller company, but in reality Amazon is a surveillance company. That’s the heart of its business model and what drives its monopoly power and profits,” said the nonprofit digital rights group Fight for the Future Director Evan Greer said. “Amazon wants to be everywhere, and acquiring a company that’s basically built to map the inside of people’s homes seems like a natural extension of the surveillance Amazon already has.”
Amazon has a proven track record for making or acquiring technology, which is unsettling for those concerned about data privacy. In 2020, Amazon launched a home security drone, and last month Ring, a company that has partnered with thousands of police and fire departments, admitted to sharing home video footage with law enforcement without a warrant. Greer said that so much data about an individual held by a company poses the threat of a single point of failure for democracy and human rights if law enforcement or the government asks for access.
The company already has its own home robot, Astro, which it launched last fall. At the time, David Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, said the company had no clear use case for the robot. In a June interview with Wired, Ken Washington, Amazon’s vice president of consumer robotics, said the initial focus was on home monitoring and security.
Astro is currently only available by invitation. Washington declined to say how many Astros are in people’s homes today or when Astros will be generally available. Since its launch, Amazon has pushed an update to Astro that allows people to add rooms to their home map without having to remap the entire home.
Amazon’s home robots are currently unable to coordinate activities across multiple units, but Washington said coordination between astronauts climbing stairs and multiple floors is part of a product development roadmap. Rather than expecting Astro to reach a large audience, the acquisition of iRobot would give Amazon immediate access to home mapping at scale.
It’s too early to tell, but the deal could face scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission. Privacy advocates have voiced objections, and FTC Chairman Lina Khan has been critical of big tech takeovers. The five-member committee consolidated a 3-2 Democratic majority in May. Khan himself was particularly notable after a Yale Law Journal article reimagined antitrust law — with Amazon being the central focus.
Even without iRobot included, Amazon doesn’t have access to certain aspects of people’s lives. It already tracks intimate details like what people eat, buy, watch, read and the prescription drugs they consume. Soon, it may also know every inch of its home.