You know that thing where you mention something oddly specific to a friend like, I don’t know, a Yu Yu Hakusho shirt only to find an advertisement for a hard Yoko Kurama hoodie on your phone a day or two later? The acclimated of us brush it off, say a little prayer to the FBI agent in our phone, and keep it pushing. Others get a little weirded out and try to push their phones a little further along the table the next time they share wishlists with their brethren. Those folks may want to add speaking in hushed tones when the robot cleans up pet hair to the repertoire.
After Amazon on Friday said it acquired iRobot, the company behind Roomba vacuums, data-privacy experts and antitrust researchers quickly raised alarm, saying the tech giant could use the purchase to vacuum up personal information from inside users’ homes.
One of the brain blast moments I enjoy the most about antitrust analysis is that outcomes can be radically different if you think about what businesses really are once you get past the common sense. This is more than just woo-woo. When people think of McDonald’s, for example, they think of hamburgers, and a clown mascot — the more astute also think of overhyped fries. But when the big brained think about what makes McDonald’s tick, they hone in on what would otherwise be imperceptible to the ill-trained; they think of real estate. I see a similar movement here. The common sense notion is that Amazon is in the business of goods, basic UCC crap. Books, speakers, charging cables, etc. But to think that, that’s like looking at a Pollock with a magnifying glass. Amazon is the business of data like Orpheus is in the business of dreams, and your Roomba just became a cleanliness-obsessed raven.
“People tend to think of Amazon as an online-seller company, but, really, Amazon is a surveillance company. That is the core of its business model, and that’s what drives its monopoly power and profit,” Evan Greer, the director of the nonprofit digital-rights-advocacy organization Fight for the Future, told Wired. “Amazon wants to have its hands everywhere, and acquiring a company that’s essentially built on mapping the inside of people’s homes seems like a natural extension of the surveillance reach that Amazon already has.”
If you think of Amazon as a seller of goods, I could see how this purchase wouldn’t be that big of a deal. “Sure, they might sell some Roombas — they might even sell a few generic Amazon-branded cleaning devices at lower cost. But thinking in those terms, they’d still have competition: Dyson, Eufy, etc.” I see the line of reasoning, but even along those lines, experts think this is a big market share that they’re just buying into.
Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer-rights advocacy group, said federal regulators should prevent Amazon’s purchase of iRobot, citing concerns over the company’s 56.7% market share.
But if you think of Amazon as a surveillance magnate, more the likes of Google or Facebook, why the hell would you approve Amazon buying a company that lets it put millions of cameras in people’s homes?
Advanced Roomba vacuums have internal mapping technology that learns the floor plan of a user’s home. The devices can also “adapt to and remember” up to 10 floor plans “so users can carry their robot to another floor or a separate home, where the robot will recognize its location and clean as instructed,” press releases by iRobot say. Some models have low-resolution cameras to avoid obstacles and aid in mapping.
I’m no expert, but it doesn’t take much to see how this could be an issue for those of us concerned with security. But I am pretty good at delegation, and this guy seems to know what he’s talking about.
All in all, I’ve got to hand it to good strategy when I see it. Brilliant move on Amazon’s part. If enough people cause a ruckus, maybe they’ll send an email out telling people that they can let the company know if they’d like to opt out of having their home mapped so Amazon can do a better job of giving them targeted ads. Or who knows? There may be some odd timeline where Amazon, based on knowledge it amasses from Roomba data, helps put some woman trying to get an abortion in prison. Sounds far fetched and ridiculous, but hear me out. It would not be the first time that data analysis was able to determine that someone was pregnant based off their purchase history. After all, 10 years ago Target was able to figure out a girl was pregnant before her father knew. Given 10 years of know-how and better surveillance tech, who knows what Amazon will be able to tell about their customer base? Or, what they’ll be able to share about their customer base to third parties. Remember, folks were worried about police departments collecting data from period tracking apps not too long ago. And did I forget to that mention they’ve already given data to police departments without the whole “getting a warrant” thing?
Ring, the company’s security-surveillance doorbell — which partners with thousands of police departments — acknowledged in a letter to Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts last month that it had shared with law enforcement footage taken from 11 customers’ residences without warrants, Politico reported.
If I was asked to bet on the odds that Amazon refuses to give data to Texas PD when push comes to shove, I’d rather buy shares of whatever today’s Enron is.
This is just theory crafting. Before you get too alarmed, know that this isn’t the only time that a tech giant known for collecting data on its customers has been in the spotlight for having the capacity to get unexpected info around the clock. Take Apple, for example. Super responsible, them. Apple even makes it look like it lets people opt out of having their phone data sent to them. Whether or not that’s what actually happens is another issue altogether.
Chris Williams became a social media manager and assistant editor for Above the Law in June 2021. Prior to joining the staff, he moonlighted as a minor Memelord™ in the Facebook group Law School Memes for Edgy T14s. He endured Missouri long enough to graduate from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. He is a former boatbuilder who cannot swim, a published author on critical race theory, philosophy, and humor, and has a love for cycling that occasionally annoys his peers. You can reach him by email at email@example.com and by tweet at @WritesForRent.
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