Privacy concerns raised after Amazon buys maker of robot vacuum cleaner Roomba

Roomba vacuum cleaner
The deal for iRobot is worth US$1.7 billion, according to the companies. Photo credit: Getty Images

The news that global shopping giant Amazon is purchasing iRobot, the maker of the popular Roomba-branded robot vacuum cleaners, has set alarm bells ringing.

In a joint announcement at the end of last week, the companies revealed the deal was worth US$1.7 billion (NZ$2.7 billion).

Dave Limp, senior vice president of Amazon Devices, said the company knew that saving time mattered to customers, and chores took up precious time that could be channelled elsewhere.

"The iRobot team has proven its ability to reinvent how people clean with products that are incredibly practical and inventive - from cleaning when and where customers want while avoiding common obstacles in the home, to automatically emptying the collection bin. Customers love iRobot products," he said.

However that level of enthusiasm wasn't matched everywhere, with many expressing caution at the extra data this would hand the tech giants.

Writing for Bloomberg, Alex Webb, pointed out that it hasn't just bought a robot vacuum cleaner maker, it's also bought a mapping company.

"To be more precise: a company that can make maps of your home," they wrote.

According to Webb, the real value in the deal resides in the Roomba's ability to do so accurately, providing that wealth of data to Amazon.

While the company said protecting data was "incredibly important" it was also branded "terrifying" by Webb.

"The size of your house is a pretty good proxy for your wealth. A floor covered in toys means you likely have kids. A household without much furniture is a household to which you can try to sell more furniture," he wrote.

When your business is selling stuff - as Amazon's is - this is useful targeting information.

Ethan Glass, an antitrust expert in the US, told Reuters he thought the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would likely review the transaction.

"I would say there is a three out of four chance of a deep investigation and a one out of four chance of a challenge," he said.

"The political appointees have made clear that they would rather go to court and lose than let a deal through that later is criticised as anti-competitive."

The backlash on social media has also been severe.

Ron Knox, a senior writer and researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which fights against monopolies, said it "may be the most dangerous, threatening acquisition in the company's history".

"Amazon's interest in buying a popular product like Roomba is obvious," Knox tweeted.

"But with its acquisition of iRobot, Amazon would get so much more: A rival product, a vast dataset, and a new way into people's homes and lives.

"Amazon's own devices, including Astro robot and its Echo devices, do much of what the iRobot operating system does. This deal will take its biggest rival out of the market."

He also described the deal as a "straight-up data acquisition".

"This would allow Amazon… to buy out a company with perhaps the most data on the size, shape and layout of the inside of our homes," he continued.

"From a privacy perspective, this is a nightmare.  From an antitrust perspective, this is one of the most powerful data collection companies on earth acquiring another vast and intrusive set of data."

Senior fellow at Emerging Tech Lab, Jathan Sadowski, also pointed out the dangers of the data.

"People forget that a while ago Roomba got caught making highly detailed maps of people’s homes and selling that information to third parties," he tweeted.