27 September 2023

“Alexa, vacuum the living room.” But at what cost?

Start the conversation

Amazon vacuums up Roomba maker iRobot, Matt Binder* says the move has sparked immediate privacy concerns.

Would you give Amazon the layout to your home? Well, you soon may not have a choice if you’re a Roomba customer.

In a statement released on Friday, the e-commerce giant announced it was acquiring iRobot, the company best known as the maker of the popular vacuuming robot, Roomba.

Amazon will purchase the consumer robot company in an all-cash deal for around $1.7 billion.

The deal, however, still needs to be approved by regulators.

“Over many years, the iRobot team has proven its ability to reinvent how people clean with products that are incredibly practical and inventive,” said SVP of Amazon Devices Dave Limp in the acquisition announcement.

“Customers love iRobot products—and I’m excited to work with the iRobot team to invent in ways that make customers’ lives easier and more enjoyable.”

It’s not hard to imagine what an Amazon-owned Roomba would look like.

For starters, the company could lower the barrier to entry by subsidizing the cost of the devices and even begin offering users subscription options to replace different Roomba parts.

But it will most likely deepen the line’s existing integration with Alexa, Amazon’s voice-controlled A.I. assistant, beyond the current list of approved skills.

However, privacy experts aren’t enamoured with these possibilities.

In fact, they are concerned about what a merger between the e-commerce giant and a company with home-mapping abilities could eventually mean for consumers’ data.

Roomba vacuums have already been scrutinized over the data they collect.

In order for these robot vacuums to work, the devices must map out your house.

That data is then collected by iRobot and, sometimes, even shared with third parties.

“Federal regulators should not allow Amazon to suck up iRobot/Roomba,” said Robert Weissman, president of the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen in a statement.

“Amazon should not be permitted to leverage its retail market power to expand its market share of connected home devices.”

Amazon has increasingly been moving into the smart home product space.

A report from market insights firm Strategy Analytics notes that Amazon’s Ring doorbell, another popular connected device, sold around 1.4 million units in 2021 alone.

This iRobot acquisition would bring Amazon’s connected devices into even more households.

According to iRobot, the company has sold more than 40 million of its consumer robots since 2021.

The Ring doorbell has already received its fair share of criticism over the years regarding Amazon’s use of Ring data.

There are also antitrust concerns to take into account as Amazon continues to scoop up companies in the smart home space.

“It’s obvious that Amazon is seeking to acquire its way to dominance in the Smart Home market and add yet another intrusive way to surveil their customers,” said Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project.

“Whether it’s Amazon rolling up Roomba and OneMedical, Facebook acquiring Within, or Google buying Mandiant, Congress needs to step in, shut down Big Tech’s acquisition spree, and fully resource the FTC in the interim.”

At this point, it’s unclear what Amazon has in mind for iRobot’s home mapping data.

While consumers may be excited about the potential for Roomba to soon mimic Rosey the Robot from The Jetsons, they should be wary about the very real privacy concerns.

Amazon, for its part, tells Mashable the following about mapping data: “Amazon is not in the business of selling our customers’ personal information, including mapping data.”

“The last thing Americans and the world need is Amazon vacuuming up even more of our personal information,” says Weissman.

“This is not just about Amazon selling another device in its marketplace.

“It’s about the company gaining still more intimate details of our lives to gain unfair market advantage and sell us more stuff.”

According to Amazon, “iRobot already offers products that are compatible with Alexa and other voice assistants (which we have no plans change).”

So while the ability to summon Alexa to go clean your room may be enticing, maybe we should be practicing the command: “Alexa, stop collecting my data.”

*Matt Binder is a journalist at Masahble.

This article first appeared at mashable.com

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.