Photo: The Canadian Press
From what you buy online, to how you remember tasks, to when you watch your doorstep, Amazon is seemingly everywhere.
And it looks like the company doesn’t want to stop its reach anytime soon. In recent weeks, Amazon said it would spend billions of dollars on two mammoth acquisitions that, if approved, will expand its ever-growing presence in consumers’ lives.
This time, the company is targeting two areas: healthcare, through its $3.9 billion buyout of primary care company One Medical, and the “smart home”, where it plans to expand its presence already. powerful thanks to a $1.7 billion merger with iRobot, the maker of the popular Roomba robotic vacuum.
Unsurprisingly for a company known for its vast collection of consumer information, the two mergers have heightened lingering privacy concerns about how Amazon collects data and what it does with it. The latest line of Roombas, for example, uses sensors that map and remember a home’s floor plan.
“It acquires this large set of data that Roomba collects about people’s homes,” said Ron Knox, an Amazon reviewer who works for the anti-monopoly group Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “Its obvious intention, through all the other products it sells to consumers, is to be in your home. (And) with the privacy issues come the antitrust issues, because that buys market share.
Amazon’s reach goes far beyond that. Some estimates show that the retail giant controls around 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 host voice assistant Alexa, have dominated the U.S. smart speaker market, accounting for about 70% of sales, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners estimates.
Ring, which Amazon bought in 2018 for $1 billion, monitors doorsteps and helps police track down crime, even when users may not know it. And at 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 data breach risks, which Amazon tried to appease.
“We treat your palm signature like other highly sensitive personal data and keep it secure using the best 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 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 any other organization that has as many touchpoints as Amazon has with an individual,” said Ian Greenblatt, who leads technology research at data research and analytics firm JD Power. . “It’s almost overwhelming, and it’s hard to put your finger on it.”
And Amazon — like any business — aims to grow. In recent years, the company has purchased Wi-Fi startup Eero and partnered with construction company Lennar to offer tech-powered homes. With iRobot, it would gain an additional building block for the ultimate smart home – and, of course, more data.
Customers can choose not to let iRobot devices store a disposal of their home, depending on the vacuum. But data privacy advocates worry the merger could be another way for Amazon to suck up information to embed in its other devices or use to target consumers with ads.
In a statement, Amazon spokeswoman Lisa Levandowski denied that was what the company wanted to do.
“We do not use home cards for targeted advertising and have no intention of doing so,” Levandowski said.
Whether that allays concerns is another question, especially in light of research into Amazon’s other devices. Earlier this year, a group of academic researchers released a report that found voice data from Amazon’s Echo devices is being 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 receiving “interest-based” ads by adjusting their preferences on Amazon’s Advertising Preferences page. She also said 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 Amazon’s store, according to the company. The researchers, however, found that only 2% of jurisdictions are clear about their data collection practices, and the vast majority don’t mention Alexa or Amazon at all.
For companies like Amazon, data collection isn’t just about data interest, noted Kristen Martin, 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 that they’re able to draw about you specifically, and then you compare yourself to other people.”
Amazon’s One Medical agreement, for example, has raised questions about how the company would handle personal health data that comes to hand.
Should the deal go through, Levandowski said customer health information would be handled separately from all other Amazon businesses. She also added that Amazon would not share personal health information outside of One Medical for the “purpose of advertising or marketing 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 wouldn’t be able to get data from other parts of Amazon’s business that could help him better profile his patients. Information just has to flow one way, she said.
Of course, the privacy concerns are not limited to Amazon. Following the overturning of Roe v Wade, for example, Google said it would automatically delete information about users who visit abortion clinics under pressure from Democratic lawmakers. Meanwhile, Facebook owner Meta settled a class action lawsuit in February over its use of “cookies” about a decade ago that tracked users after they logged out of Facebook.
But unlike Meta and Google, which primarily focus on selling ads, Amazon could benefit more from data collection because its main purpose is to sell products, said Alex Harman, director of competition policy at the anti-monopoly group Economic Security Project.
“To them, data is about tricking you into buying more and being locked into their business,” Harman said.
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