Amazon's iRobot purchase reportedly faces EU investigation (updated)

Officials are wondering if Amazon might misuse Roomba image data.

Onur Binay on Unsplash

American politicians may not be the only government figures concerned about Amazon's proposed acquisition of iRobot. The Financial Times sources claim European Union regulators are grilling Amazon ahead of a "likely" official investigation. The European Commission has sent questions about potential privacy issues, including Roomba robot vacuums' ability to capture imagery. Officials are worried Amazon might combine the pictures with Alexa data to gain a "competitive advantage," according to one source.

MIT Technology Review recently discovered that photos taken by development versions of Roomba J7 vacuums had reached private Discord and Facebook groups. At the time, iRobot said the technology never made it to production models, was clearly labeled for testers and included a warning to remove "sensitive" items from the robovac's view. The findings led iRobot to cut ties with Scale AI, a startup that relies on contractors to label data for AI training — it appeared that people working on this project leaked the pictures.

Amazon is supposedly poised to counter a possible investigation by noting that production Roombas only have rudimentary home mapping and aren't likely to create privacy issues. We've asked the European Commission for comment. In a statement to Engadget, Amazon said it was "working cooperatively" with regulators.

A formal investigation is weeks away at best, the claimed insiders say. However, Amazon may want to address any initial worries quickly. The EU would start with a limited probe, but would conduct a more substantial "phase 2" investigation if Amazon couldn't satisfy regulators.

The potential challenge comes just as the EU is vowing to get tougher against Big Tech companies like Amazon when investigating alleged privacy abuses. Civil liberty advocates have accused the EU of being too lenient and slow when dealing with these violations. An investigation of the iRobot deal wouldn't be directly linked to this crackdown, but would make clear that privacy is a major focus for merger reviews.

Update 2/15 3:51PM ET: A European Commission spokesperson tells Engadget the regulator hasn't been "formally notified" of Amazon's iRobot transaction, but otherwise isn't commenting further.