From what you buy online, to how you remember tasks, to when you monitor your doorstep, Amazon seems to be everywhere.
And it seems that the company does not want to stop its activities anytime soon. In recent weeks, Amazon said it would spend billions of dollars on two giant acquisitions that, if approved, would expand its ever-growing presence in consumers’ lives.
This time, the company is targeting two areas: healthcare, buying a primary care company for $3.9 billion. One medicaland “smart home,” where it plans to expand its already powerful presence through a $1.7 billion merger with the company. iRobotmaker of the popular Roomba robot vacuum cleaner.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a company known for its vast collection of consumer information, both mergers have heightened privacy concerns about how Amazon collects data and what it does with it. For example, the latest line of Roombas uses sensors that display and remember the layout of the house.
“It’s taking the vast array of data that Roomba collects about people’s homes,” said Ron Knox, an Amazon critic who works for the antitrust group the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “Its clear intent, through all the other products it sells to consumers, is to be in your home. (And) along with the privacy concerns come the antitrust concerns because it’s buying market share.”
Amazon’s reach goes far beyond that. Some estimates suggest the retail giant controls roughly 38% of the U.S. e-commerce market, allowing it to collect detailed data on the shopping preferences of millions of Americans and more around the world. Meanwhile, its Echo devices, which house the Alexa voice assistant, dominate the U.S. smart speaker market, accounting for roughly 70% of sales, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.
Ring, which Amazon acquired in 2018 for $1 billion, monitors thresholds and helps police track crimes – even when users may not be aware. 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 the risk of data leaks that Amazon has tried to mitigate.
“We treat your palm signature the same as other highly sensitive personal data and keep it secure using best-in-class technical and physical security controls,” the company said on a website detailing the technology .
Even consumers who actively avoid Amazon still have little say in how their employers operate their computer networks, which Amazon — along with Google — has long dominated through its AWS cloud computing service.
“It’s hard to imagine another organization that has as many touch points as Amazon has with an individual,” said Ian Greenblatt, head of technical research at consumer research and data analytics firm JD Power. “It’s almost overwhelming and it’s hard to put a finger on it.”
And Amazon, like any company, is looking to grow. Over the past few years, the company has acquired Wi-Fi startup Eero and partnered with construction company Lennar to offer tech-powered homes. With the help of iRobot, it will get another building block for the ultimate smart home — and, of course, more data.
According to the vacuum cleaner manufacturer, customers can opt out of iRobot devices saving the layout of their homes. But data privacy advocates worry that the merger is another way that Amazon can obtain information to integrate into other devices or use it to target consumers with advertising.
In a statement, Amazon spokeswoman Lisa Lewandowski denied that’s what the company wants to do.
“We do not use house maps for targeted advertising and do not plan to,” Lewandowski said.
Whether that will solve the problem is another matter, especially in light of Amazon’s research on other devices. Earlier this year, a group of university researchers published a report that found that voice data from Amazon 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 study, said he and his colleagues found Echo devices running third-party skills that are similar to apps for Alexa that interact with advertisers.
Lewandowski said consumers can opt out of receiving interest-based advertising by adjusting their preferences on Amazon’s ad settings page. She also said that Amazon does not forward Alexa requests to ad networks.
For companies like Amazon, data collection isn’t just for their own sake, said Kristen Martin, a professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame.
“You can almost see them just trying to paint a bigger picture of the person,” Martin said. “It’s about the inferences they can make about you specifically, and then they compare you to other people.”
For example, the Amazon One Medical deal has raised questions about how the company will handle the personal health data that will land in its lap.
If the deal closes, Lewandowski said customers’ health information will be handled separately from all other Amazon businesses. She also added that Amazon will not share personal health information outside of One Medical for “advertising or marketing purposes for other Amazon products and services without the customer’s express permission.”
But Lucia Savage, chief privacy officer at healthcare provider Omada Health, said that doesn’t mean One Medical won’t be able to get data from Amazon’s other units to help it better identify patients. She said that information should flow in one direction.
Of course, privacy concerns aren’t limited to Amazon. For example, after Roe v. Wade was overturned, Google said it would automatically get rid of the information about users visiting abortion clinics. Meanwhile, Meta, which owns Facebook, settled a class-action lawsuit in February over the use of “cookies” dating back nearly a decade that tracked users after they left Facebook.
But unlike Meta and Google, which are mostly focused on selling ads, Amazon could benefit more from data collection because its primary purpose is to sell products, said Alex Harmon, director of competition policy at the Economic Security Project, an antitrust group.
“For them, data is about getting you to buy more and be locked into their stuff,” Harmon said.