After decades of maker of war machines and home cleaning gadgets, 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 would give Amazon access to another source of personal data: interior 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 the defense business entirely in 2016.) These Roombas work in part by using sensors to map the homes in which they operate. In a 2017 Reuters interview, iRobot CEO Colin Angle suggested that the company might one day share this data with developing technology companies. smart home devices and AI assistants.
Amazon declined to answer questions about how it would use that data, but combined with other recent acquisition targets, the company could end up with a comprehensive view of what goes on in people’s homes. The e-commerce giant acquired video doorbell company Ring in 2018 and Wi-Fi router maker Eero a year later. Speakers and other devices with AI assistant Alexa 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 cash deal, which if approved would put the health data of millions of people at its disposal.
“People tend to think of Amazon as an online sales company, but really Amazon is a surveillance company. That’s the core of their business model, and that’s what drives their monopoly power and profits,” he says. Evan Greer, director of digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future. “Amazon wants to have its hands everywhere, and acquiring a company that essentially relies on mapping the inside of people’s homes seems like a natural extension of the surveillance reach Amazon already has.”
Amazon has a history of making or acquiring technology that makes those concerned about data privacy uncomfortable. In 2020, Amazon unveiled a home security drone, and last month Ring, a company that has forged partnerships with thousands of police and fire departments, admitted to sharing home video footage with law enforcement without any order Should law enforcement or governments demand access, so much data about people in the hands of a single company threatens to be a single point of failure for democracy and human rights, Greer says.
The company already has its own home robot, Astro, which it introduced last fall. At the time, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, David Limp, said the company launched 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 surveillance and home security.
Astro is currently available by invitation only. Washington declined to share the number of Astros in people’s homes today or when Astro will be generally available. Since launch, Amazon pushed an update to Astro that allows people to add rooms to a house map without having to remap an entire house.
Currently, Amazon’s home robots can’t coordinate activity between multiple units, but Washington said climbing stairs and coordinating between Astros on multiple floors is part of the product’s development roadmap. Instead of waiting for Astro to reach a mass audience, acquiring iRobot would give Amazon an instant home mapping presence at scale.
It’s too early to tell, but the deal could be scrutinized by the Federal Trade Commission. Privacy advocates have already voiced their opposition, and FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan has been deeply critical of acquisitions by Big Tech companies. The five-member commission consolidated a 3-2 Democratic majority in May. And Khan herself came to the fore after a Yale Law Journal article reimagining antitrust law, with Amazon as the central focus.
Even without bringing iRobot into the fold, 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 can also know every inch of your homes.