Amazon has become notorious for the insidious surveillance it imposes on its warehouse and delivery workers, ranging from video and online surveillance, to biometric tracking, to interference with union elections. But less well known—yet equally concerning—are its efforts to inflict its dystopian workplace surveillance practices on its customers.
In recent weeks, Amazon has announced its intention to purchase healthcare provider OneMedical and home automation developer iRobot, painting a troubling picture of a company that is seeking to profit off of the most intimate details of people’s lives: our bodies and our homes.
Amazon has spent the past decade trying to gain a sustained foothold in the healthcare industry.
Amazon has spent the past decade trying to gain a sustained foothold in the healthcare industry. These ambitions are unsurprising, given the opportunities for monopolists and middlemen in the industry. Amazon Web Services, through its AWS For Health service, is already the backbone for many of the industry’s top insurers, technological companies, researchers, and hospitals. But as with its third-party retailer Marketplace, Amazon’s primary motivation seems to be warehousing businesses’ data to learn about the industry and develop its own competing products, rather than to simply provide a service.
With its purchase of OneMedical—and, even more recently, its purchase of iRobot, maker of home automation gadgets like the popular Roomba vacuum—Amazon is able to harvest even more data, sound, and video. This has frightening implications for people’s civil and human rights. For example, a pregnant woman seeking an abortion now has to worry that her vacuum could send video from inside her home to police departments without her knowledge or consent, or that the pharmacy order from her doctor may put her at risk of firing or imprisonment, given her employer’s medical services contract with Amazon.
Amazon’s recent investments suggest that the company sees its future in leveraging the oceans of data at its disposal for use in surveillance and control over labor and resources.
Amazon’s recent investments suggest that the company sees its future in leveraging the oceans of data at its disposal for use in surveillance and control over labor and resources. OneMedical is not just attractive to Amazon as a plug-and-play medical care provider that can bring the nascent telehealth and in-person services offered through Amazon Health to national scale. OneMedical has prioritized and valued data as a key component in its business model from its inception—it was initially founded and scaled with investment from Google, and derives much of its revenue from contracts with employers to provide primary care for employees via app, detailed electronic records, and telehealth services.
If allowed to go through, the acquisitions would further solidify Amazon’s ambition to become the chief data broker for every industry. Given the company’s track record of labor and privacy abuses, its exploitation of Black and brown communities and workers, and its consistent efforts to consolidate power, these purchases must be stopped. Oversight agencies should heed the warnings of community organizers taking the lead to push back against Amazon’s ambitions, and enforce the regulations that would hold the country’s most profitable companies and industries accountable to the public.
The bravery and tactics exemplified by For Us, Not Amazon and by organizers from Alabama to Washington, Newark to San Bernardino, provide a path forward for popular movements to provide direct checks on Amazon’s power at the community level and push legislators to act in the public interest.
Anti-monopoly advocates have already spoken out against Amazon’s recent purchases, including ILSR, the Open Markets Institute, the American Economic Liberties Project, and For Us, Not Amazon. The latter is a coalition organizing against Amazon’s expansion into Northern Virginia—and the subject of a forthcoming Demos case study. For Us, Not Amazon has led the charge against surveillance plans Amazon had for Northern Virginia. Here, Amazon ingratiated itself to local governments through agreements to provide police departments subsidized surveillance technology. Amazon’s attempt to partner with the Arlington County Police Department through the company’s Ring home security service concerned activists, who mobilized the community to draw attention to Amazon’s surveillance record and the threats to civil liberty posed by its partnerships with police departments and federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Their months-long efforts effectively made the proposed partnership untenable, and Arlington County Police Department officials announced that they would no longer pursue the deal. The bravery and tactics exemplified by For Us, Not Amazon and by organizers from Alabama to Washington, Newark to San Bernardino, provide a path forward for popular movements to provide direct checks on Amazon’s power at the community level and push legislators to act in the public interest.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is also taking steps to challenge Amazon’s growth. The agency recently announced a partnership with the National Labor Relations Board to provide stronger protections for workers in the face of deceptive and anticompetitive practices by employers. The FTC also announced a forthcoming rulemaking proceeding on surveillance and data security, asking for public comment in advance to inform new rules and regulations curtailing corporate surveillance practices.
Amazon’s purchase of OneMedical is big enough to automatically trigger review by either the FTC or the Department of Justice, just as its purchase of filmmaking studio MGM was a little over a year ago. As the FTC continues its antitrust investigation into Amazon, this moment marks a prime opportunity (no pun intended) to restore competitive balance to an increasingly concentrated industry, and strike a decisive victory on the side of community advocates working to preserve autonomy and privacy under the shadow of a nakedly anti-democratic, anti-competitive transnational corporation.