Data privacy and antitrust advocates have raised concerns about Amazon’s acquisition of iRobot, the maker of Roomba vacuum cleaners, warning that the company could use the deal to collect even more personal data from consumers’ homes.
Last week, Amazon said it would buy iRobot in an all-cash transaction for about $1.7 billion.
Following last month’s purchase of healthcare business One Medical for $4 billion, this would be Amazon’s fourth largest acquisition.
According to industry database Statista, iRobot’s Roomba has a 75% market share in US smart vacuum cleaner revenue. Last fall, Amazon also launched its own product, The Astro, a $1,450 three-wheeled gadget that has yet to generate much interest among customers.
Advanced Roomba vacuums, according to iRobot, include built-in mapping technology that can learn the floor layout of a user’s home.
The gadgets can also adapt and remember up to 10 different floor layouts, allowing customers to move their robot to a different level or house and have it follow their instructions to clean there.
With Alexa, Amazon dominates the smart speaker market, while its Ring brand sells more video doorbells than any other company in the world.
The acquisition of Roomba is a natural extension of Amazon’s big goals, with many industry experts believing that Amazon’s main goal is to eliminate its biggest competitor in this specific market.
This has alarmed organizations concerned about the growing power of large corporations, as well as those worried about privacy and surveillance.
“Buying what’s your biggest competitor should be an antitrust violation,” said Sarah Miller, executive director of the antitrust watchdog American Economic Liberties Project.
While most people think of Amazon as an online retailer, in reality, “Amazon is a surveillance firm,” Evan Greer, director of the nonprofit Digital Rights Group A battle for the future told With cable.
“This is the core of his business model and it is what drives his monopoly power and profit.”
Antitrust experts believe that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), chaired by Lina Khan, may conduct a thorough investigation into the purchase.
To block the merger, the FTC would likely have to make the challenging argument that the purchase could significantly reduce competition in the smart vacuum cleaner market, a tough case right now.
The deal could pose a significant risk to customer privacy. Roomba can map the floor layouts of customers’ homes and could, in theory, send that information back to Amazon’s corporate offices.
Privacy advocates warn that Amazon may be able to determine users’ marital status or income level based on the size of their home and then more directly target users with ads.
It “may be the most dangerous, threatening acquisition in the company’s history,” said Ron Knox, senior researcher and writer at the Institute for Indigenous Self-Reliance.
Amazon can expand its existing knowledge of users’ homes with the vast amount of data in iRobot’s established data sets, as well as new data from Roomba devices.
Amazon has tried to downplay the privacy issue.
Spokeswoman Alexandra Miller said in a statement that “protecting customer data has always been incredibly important to Amazon” and the company believes they have been “very good stewards of people’s data across all of our businesses.”
She added: “Customer trust is something we’ve worked hard to earn – and work hard to keep – every day.”