BIG BROTHER. A Roomba 980 vacuum cleaning robot is shown during a
presentation in Tokyo in this September 29, 2015 file photo. From what
you buy online, to how you remember tasks, to when you monitor your
doorstep, Amazon is seemingly everywhere. And it appears the company
doesnít want to halt its reach anytime soon. In recent weeks, Amazon has
said it will spend billions of dollars in two gigantic acquisitions
that, if approved, will broaden its ever growing presence in the lives
of consumers. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)
From The Asian Reporter, V32, #9 (September 5, 2022), pages 10
Amazon keeps growing, and so does its cache of data
By Haleluya Hadero
The Associated Press
From what you buy online, to how you remember tasks, to when you
monitor your doorstep, Amazon is seemingly everywhere.
And it appears the company doesnít want to halt its reach anytime
soon. In recent weeks, Amazon has said it will spend billions of dollars
in two gigantic acquisitions that, if approved, will broaden its ever
growing presence in the lives of consumers.
This time, the company is targeting two areas: healthcare, through
its $3.9 billion buyout of the primary care company One Medical, and the
"smart home," where it plans to expand its already mighty presence
through a $1.7 billion merger with iRobot, the maker of the popular
robotic Roomba vacuum.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a company known for its vast collection of
consumer information, both mergers have heightened enduring privacy
concerns about how Amazon gathers data and what it does with it. The
latest line of Roombas, for example, employ sensors that map and
remember a homeís floor plan.
"Itís acquiring this vast set of data that Roomba collects about
peopleís homes," said Ron Knox, an Amazon critic who works for the
anti-monopoly group Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "Its obvious
intent, through all the other products that it sells to consumers, is to
be in your home. (And) along with the privacy issues come the antitrust
issues, because itís buying market share."
Amazonís reach goes well beyond that. Some estimates show the retail
giant controls roughly 38% of the U.S. e-commerce market, allowing it to
gather granular data about the shopping preferences of millions of
Americans and more worldwide. Meanwhile, its Echo devices, which house
the voice assistant Alexa, have dominated the U.S. smart speaker market,
accounting for roughly 70% of sales, according to estimates by Consumer
Intelligence Research Partners.
Ring, which Amazon purchased in 2018 for $1 billion, monitors
doorsteps and helps police track down crime ó even when users might not
be aware. And at select Amazon stores and Whole Foods, the company is
testing a palm-scanning technology that allows customers to pay for
items by storing biometric data in the cloud, sparking concerns about
risks of a data breach, which Amazon has attempted to assuage.
"We treat your palm signature just like other highly sensitive
personal data and keep it safe using best-in-class technical and
physical security controls," the company said on a website that provides
information about the technology.
Even consumers who actively avoid Amazon are still likely to have
little say about how their employers power their computer networks,
which Amazon ó along with Google ó has long dominated through its
cloud-computing service AWS.
"Itís hard to think of another organization that has as many touch
points as Amazon does to an individual," said Ian Greenblatt, who heads
up tech research at the consumer research and data analytics firm J.D.
Power. "Itís almost overwhelming, and itís hard to put a finger on it."
And Amazon ó like any company ó aims to grow. In the past few years,
the company has purchased the Wi-Fi startup Eero and partnered with the
construction company Lennar to offer tech-powered houses. With iRobot,
it would gain one more building block for the ultimate smart home ó and,
of course, more data.
Customers can opt out of having iRobot devices store a layout of
their homes, according to the vacuum maker. But data privacy advocates
worry the merger is another way Amazon could suck up information to
integrate into its other devices or use it to target consumers with ads.
In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski denied thatís
what the company wants to do.
"We do not use home maps for targeted advertising and have no plans
to do so," Levandowski said.
Whether that will relieve concerns is another matter, especially in
light of research about Amazonís other devices. Earlier this year, a
group of university researchers released a report that found voice data
from Amazonís Echo devices are used to target ads to consumers ó
something the company had 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
Levandowski said consumers can opt out of receiving "interest-based"
ads by adjusting their preferences on Amazonís advertising preferences
page. She also said Amazon doesnít share Alexa requests with advertising
Skills that collect personal information are required to post their
privacy policies on a detail page in Amazonís store, according to the
company. Researchers, however, found only 2% of Skills are clear about
their data collection practices, and the vast majority donít mention
Alexa or Amazon at all.
For companies like Amazon, data collection is for more than just
dataís sake, noted Kristen Martin, a professor of technology ethics at
the University of Notre Dame.
"You can almost see them just trying to paint a broader picture of an
individual," Martin said. "Itís about the inferences that theyíre able
to draw about you specifically, and then you compared to other people."
Amazonís One Medical deal, for instance, has sparked questions about
how the company would handle personal health data that would fall into
Should the deal close, Levandowski said customersí health information
will be handled separately from all other Amazon businesses. She also
added Amazon wouldnít share personal health information outside of One
Medical for "advertising or marketing purposes of other Amazon products
and services without clear permission from the customer."
But Lucia Savage, a chief privacy officer at the chronic care
provider Omada Health, said that doesnít mean One Medical wouldnít be
able to get data from other arms of Amazonís business that could help it
better profile its patients. The information just has to flow one way,
To be sure, privacy concerns are not limited to Amazon. In the
aftermath of Roe v. Wade being overturned, for instance, Google
said it would automatically get rid of information about users who visit
abortion clinics amid pressure from Democratic lawmakers. Meanwhile,
Meta, which owns Facebook, settled a class action lawsuit in February
over its use of "cookies" about a decade ago that tracked users after
they logged off Facebook.
But unlike Meta and Google, whose focus is mainly on selling ads,
Amazon might benefit more from collecting data because its primary goal
is to sell products, said Alex Harman, director of competition policy at
the anti-monopoly group Economic Security Project.
"For them, data is all about getting you to buy more and be locked
into their stuff," Harman said.
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