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Amazon's latest purchases are a surveillance nightmare

The tech giant has agreed to buy iRobot and health care company One Medical. The data implications are grave, which is partly why the FTC is investigating.


On Friday, Politico reported that the Federal Trade Commission is investigating Amazon’s agreement to acquire two companies that would help the tech giant become an even bigger hoarder of people’s personal information. 

Specifically, the FTC is investigating Amazon’s recent purchases of One Medical, a subscription-based health care company, and iRobot, which is responsible for artificial intelligence-controlled vacuum cleaners like the Roomba. The investigation is said to be focused on Amazon’s suite of data-collecting “smart” devices and whether the deals break anti-monopoly laws.

As The Verge noted in its writeup of the investigation: “The acquisitions of both companies align with Amazon’s long-term goals of carving out its own lane in the healthcare industry, as well as collecting more data about its customers, something Amazon could do with Roomba’s home-mapping capabilities.”

Yes, Amazon is making a play to own even more private data. These acquisitions would add to an already huge arsenal of surveillance devices in Amazon’s portfolio. The company currently owns Alexa, a “virtual assistant” for your home that already gobbles up troves of personal data whenever people speak into enabled devices. And Amazon also owns Ring, the company that sells doorbell cameras that can record a disturbing amount of audio and video, a fact evident by the historic amount of data that Ring has turned over to the federal government

Meanwhile, iRobot sells (could the name be any scarier?) vacuums that are capable of mapping out your home and the things inside. And controlling One Medical would give Amazon access to valuable personal information that could be used to target users with ultra-precise health care ads. 

It’ll be important to keep an eye on the FTC’s investigation as it unfolds, as well as keep close watch of other large companies making plays for our personal data. Books like Jaron Lanier’s “Who Owns the Future?” have predicted our current era, in which the companies that possess the most user information tend to be the most powerful. 

We know personal data can be used maliciously, and Amazon is not to be taken at its word that it has no plans to do so. And we certainly can’t assume Amazon won’t pass off personal data to third parties that do plan to use it maliciously.

These are scary times on the tech front. I anxiously await the results of the FTC’s investigation.