August 5, 2022 Amazon announced the acquisition of iRobotmanufacturer of the Roomba intelligent vacuum cleaner and leader in the sector, having already exceeded the million units sold in Italy by mid-2020.
And it is news that even those who have no robot broom at home can legitimately worry.
Smart home automation, what consumers don’t know: this is how we play privacy and security
Of course, the Federal Trade Commission, the American supervisory authority on market competition, has not yet expressed judgment on the operation, which therefore has yet to be formalized, but the numbers have been disclosed: 1 billion and 700,000 dollars, which is the fourth largest acquisition in which the giant led by Jeff Bezos has become the protagonist after Whole Foods (supermarket chain for the American upper middle class), the legendary Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and 1Life Healthcare Inc. (company private health care). Let’s reflect: 1.7 billion dollars, more than the GDP of San Marino. Bezos could have acquired a small state, but he has preferred a company that produces vacuum cleaners. Why invest so much in the production of an appliance?
Why Amazon wants to buy iRobot (Roomba)
The answer lies in the fact that, in reality, Roomba is not just an autonomous vacuum cleaner, but a machine equipped with sophisticated sensors and, in some models, cameras that are used to create a digital plant of the room to be cleaned, with lots of detail on the objects placed on the ground or on the pets to avoid. Roomba is also able to store more than one digital floor plan, so that the user can use it in other apartments or on the various floors of their home.
September 23, 2022 – 10:00
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It is therefore a tool to collect information about users, adding it to the already very rich data that Amazon has thanks to its main businesses, that is:
- online sales
- and the provision of Internet services through Amazon Web Services (more targeted to businesses, however, than to families).
- To which are added, again in home automation, the smart assistant universe Alexa (spreading to more and more devices)
- and the smart doorbell (or video intercom) Ring.
Consumer and antitrust associations in action
The acquisition of Roomba, therefore, gives thought to both the competition authorities and the consumer associations that deal with the protection of private data.
Antitrust and Amazon-iRobot
Antitrust must assess how the transaction will affect competition in the market and Amazon’s potential (further) exploitation of its dominant position. Probably the Federal Trade Commission will not prevent the conclusion of the deal, given that Amazon has important rivals in the “smart home” sector such as Google with the entire Nest line of thermostats, cameras, digital locks, wi-fi systems … As long as one of the main criteria the price to the consumer remains the antitrust evaluation, other competition metrics, such as the possibility of exploiting information to send targeted advertising or to encourage the sale of one’s products and services compared to those of rivals, remain of little relevance.
Consumer associations and Amazon-iRobot
Consumer associations, for their part, warn users about the implications that the acquisition will have on the processing of their data. But what are, practically, the risks of this operation related to privacy? What does it matter if Amazon knows the inside of our homes? Some believe that there is no increase in privacy risks for the consumer – after all, Amazon can deduce much more sensitive information regarding its users’ tastes and preferences by using the avalanche of data available through its online sales platform, hence the added value. of data from Roomba’s digital floor plans seems low. Privacy experts, however, disagree.
The privacy node
Although Amazon has reassured users that the data collected is not shared with third parties, it has already happened several times that various police and law enforcement agencies have had access to data from Amazon. For example, Ring, the branch of the company that makes doorbells with surveillance cameras, provided data to US police force without consumer consent and without a judge’s order. In 2020, his own employees had unauthorized access to videos from Ring users.
And many will remember using data from Alexa to solve murder cases in Florida, Arkansas, or New Hampshire. Not to mention the security of the databases on which all this data resides: although Amazon’s standards are high, no system that can be accessed via the Internet is ever absolutely secure.
Because the concentration of data must worry us
The general point, therefore, goes far beyond the single case of Amazon buying iRobot. The privacy risks are today mainly due to the fact that the data market has not been regulated for years and, even today that there are, at least for residents in Europe, the protections of complex laws such as the GDPR and the ePrivacy directive, of consumer data is still extremely lucrative, in part precisely because so many of the protections that come from the legislation can be circumvented through mergers or acquisitions. Amazon hasn’t acquired a vacuum cleaner company – it has captured all the data it has and continues to collect on consumers, $ 1 billion and $ 700,000 worth of data. The acquisition of WhatsApp by Meta (then Facebook) was even more sensational (we all remember the record figure of 19 billion dollars) but it was motivated by the same considerations.
Same goes for Google’s for Nest. And when it is said that so much it is anonymous or non-sensitive data, the truth is that modern computational methods, flanked by increasingly powerful machines, able to process more and more data and faster, make all data re-identifiable ( that is, no longer anonymous) and, in fact, sensitive.
A recent example of data de-anonymization comes from the market (completely unknown to many users) of vehicles with Internet connection capabilities, the smart cars. The market for data from smart cars is still relatively small but, according to some analyzes, its value could rise to $ 800 billion by 2030. Although many companies in the sector point out that they use aggregate or anonymous data, the unique nature of the location and motion data greatly increases the potential for breach of user privacy. Indeed, under certain conditions, a person’s movements are enough to uniquely identify him.
And as the minorities they suffer know well discrimination, one’s movements can be extremely sensitive information (here an example of how information on the position of some private vehicles, collected through automatic license plate readers, has been used to monitor Muslim communities in New York). But this is just an example – the scientific literature has been studying methods of re-identifying anonymous databases for decades in the most disparate sectors: from entertainment to the medical sector to the financial sector (the interested reader can start from the works of sufficient, a pioneer in this field). Of course, privacy experts are always creating new methods to help companies and organizations to anonymize their databases effectively, for example through techniques known as differential privacy, currently the safest standard, but the risk of re-identification it is never zero.
Moving on to the discussion on more or less sensitive data, why is a detailed internal plan of a house, complete with images (and who knows, one day even audio?), Together with the data on the use of a vacuum cleaner, are sensitive?
For example because they could be used to propose targeted advertising for certain products or services, which some may find intrusive, or because they could facilitate price discrimination of those same products or services, and no one likes to pay more than their neighbor for the same good. Or because an authoritarian government could decide to ban the consumption of energy above a certain limit to its citizens, and could have access to the consumption of Roomba which, perhaps, can be categorized as a superfluous good. As always happens when dealing with fundamental human rights, of which privacy is an example, even its violation is greater for subjects at risk, such as minorities, those who are subject to persecution for any reason of an ideological or political nature. , or religious.
The data market is not just a problem of advertising or personalization of products and services: it has an effect on a fundamental right such as privacy. which, despite valid attempts at legislation, is not yet effectively protected.
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