From what you buy online, to how you remember tasks, to when you monitor your door, Amazon is seemingly everywhere.
And it seems the company doesn’t want to stop its reach any time soon. In recent weeks, Amazon has said it will spend billions of dollars on two mammoth acquisitions that, if approved, will extend its ever-increasing presence in consumers’ lives.
This time, the company is targeting two areas: health care, through its $3.9 billion purchase of primary care company One Medical.and the “smart home,” where it plans to expand its already powerful presence through a $1.7 billion merger with iRobot.the maker of the popular Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a company known for its vast collection of consumer information, both mergers have raised privacy concerns about how Amazon collects data and what it does with it. The latest line of Roombas, for example, employs sensors that map and remember the floor plan of a house.
“You’re acquiring this vast set of data that the Roomba collects about people’s homes,” said Ron Knox, an Amazon critic who works for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance antitrust group. “Its obvious intent, through all the other products it sells to consumers, is to be in their home. (And) along with the privacy issues come the antitrust issues, because you’re buying market share.”
Amazon’s reach goes far beyond that. Some estimates show that the retail giant controls about 38% of the US e-commerce market, allowing it to collect granular data on the shopping preferences of millions of Americans and more around the world. Meanwhile, its Echo devices, which house the Alexa voice assistant, have dominated the US smart speaker market, accounting for about 70% of sales, according to estimates from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.
Ring, which Amazon bought in 2018 for $1 billion, monitors doors and helps police track crime, even when users may not be aware. And in select Amazon and Whole Foods stores, the company is testing palm-scanning technology that allows customers to pay for items by storing biometric data in the cloud, raising concerns about the risks of a data breach. , which Amazon has attempted to mitigate.
“We treat your palm signature like other highly sensitive personal data and keep it secure using best-in-class technical and physical security controls,” the company said on a website providing information about the technology.
Even consumers who actively avoid Amazon probably still have little say in how their employers power their computer networks, which Amazon, along with Google, has long dominated through its AWS cloud computing service.
“It’s hard to think of another organization that has as many touchpoints as Amazon with an individual,” said Ian Greenblatt, who heads technology research at consumer research and data analytics firm JD Power. “It’s almost overwhelming, and it’s hard to identify.”
And Amazon, like any company, aims to grow. In recent years, the company has bought Wi-Fi startup Eero and partnered with homebuilder Lennar to offer tech-enabled homes. With iRobot, you’d gain one more building block for the ultimate smart home and, of course, more data.
Customers can choose to have iRobot devices store a layout of their homes, depending on the vacuum. But data privacy advocates fear the merger is another way Amazon could suck up information to embed in its other devices or use it to target consumers with ads.
In a statement, Amazon spokeswoman Lisa Levandowski denied that this is what the company wants to do.
“We don’t use starter maps for targeted advertising and have no plans to do so,” Levandowski said.
Whether that will alleviate concerns is another question, especially in light of the investigation into other Amazon devices. Earlier this year, a group of university researchers published a report that found that voice data from Amazon Echo devices is used to target ads to consumers, something the company has denied in the past.
Umar Iqbal, a postdoc at the University of Washington who led the research, said he and his colleagues found Echo devices running third-party Skills, which are like apps for Alexa, that communicate with advertisers.
Levandowski said consumers can opt out of “interest-based” ads by adjusting their preferences on Amazon’s advertising preferences page. He also said that Amazon does not share Alexa requests with ad networks.
Skills that collect personal information are required to post their privacy policies on a detail page in the Amazon store, according to the company. The researchers, however, found that only 2% of Skills are clear about their data collection practices, with the vast majority not mentioning Alexa or Amazon at all.
For companies like Amazon, data collection is about more than the data, said Kristen Martin, a professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame.
“You can almost see them trying to paint a bigger picture of an individual,” Martin said. “It’s about the inferences they can draw about you specifically, and then they compare you to other people.”
Amazon’s One Medical deal, for example, has raised questions about how the company would handle personal health data that would fall into its lap.
If the deal goes through, Levandowski said customers’ health information will be handled separately from all other Amazon businesses. He also added that Amazon would not share personal health information outside of One Medical for “advertising or marketing purposes for other Amazon products and services without clear customer permission.”
But Lucia Savage, chief privacy officer at chronic care provider Omada Health, said that doesn’t mean One Medical can’t get data from other arms of Amazon’s business that could help it better profile its patients. Information only has to flow in one direction, she said.
Privacy concerns are certainly not limited to Amazon. In the wake of the Roe v Wade overturn, for example, Google said it would automatically dispose of the information. about users visiting abortion clinics amid pressure from Democratic lawmakers. Meanwhile, Meta, which owns Facebook, settled a class action lawsuit in February over the use of “cookies” about a decade ago that tracked users after they logged out of Facebook.
But unlike Meta and Google, whose focus is primarily on selling ads, Amazon could benefit more from data collection because its primary goal is to sell products, said Alex Harman, director of competition policy at the antitrust group Economic Security Project.
“For them, data is about getting you to buy more and lock yourself into your stuff,” Harman said.