Amazon wants to fill your home with its products. The company sells a voice-activated smart speaker that can tell you the weather (Echo), a security camera that can show you who’s stealing your packages (Ring), and a media streamer that can play films and shows on your television (Fire TV). It also sells dozens of other devices — plugs, thermostats, lights, vacuums, even microwaves — with its chatty voice assistant Alexa stuffed inside. Now Amazon is looking to own your smarthome’s foundation too: the router.
On Monday, Amazon announced its acquisition of Eero, which makes a router system designed to cover hard-to-reach Wi-Fi dead zones. Buying a home network infrastructure company might sound like a boring move — but it’s a powerful attacking piece in Amazon’s quest to own the smarthome and, more interestingly, to obtain more data about its customers at the same time.
Routers can capture telling information. A router knows the number and brands of the internet-connected devices you have at home, and when you’re home using those devices. A 2017 Eero report with anonymized data collected from “hundreds of thousands” of its routers shows a glimpse into what information can be gleaned: Charts showing times of day users are most active (Sunday between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m.), and a list of the top 40 devices connected to Eero networks (topped by the iPhone, iPad, and Sonos speakers). If you have more than three Eeros, the company can deduce you have a big house.
“One entity might own all the devices in your home. It can form a very complete profile of you as a person in both the physical and digital world, and this is extremely concerning from a personal privacy perspective,” said Sydney Li, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Routers do have access to your browsing history, as long as you're connected to that network, but the data is more limited. Whenever you visit a secured website that begins with HTTPS, the router can see at most the domain of the site (for example, google.com), but not its contents, like what you were searching for. “Your router can also associate the network activity and web traffic it sees with a particular device ID. It's possible to change/spoof this ID (MAC address) if you know how, but most people won't,” said Li.
In any case, Amazon can use this data to understand its consumers better and keep an eye on which competitors are in their customers' homes. An Amazon spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the company will acquire Eero's existing customer data as a part of the acquisition, which it will use to provide and improve its services.
Amazon has used data collected from its marketplace to give itself a competitive edge before. The company, which tracks shoppers’ browsing and purchase behavior, sells its own brand of products through private labels like AmazonBasics at low prices. Some third-party sellers say the private-label program is crushing their business on the platform.
In the past, Eero touted its position as an independent hardware company as a benefit to consumers. “Our goal is to create high quality hardware and software. We aren’t in the business of selling ads or customer data, and we don’t monitor internet traffic,” wrote the company in a March 2017 blog post. That may change soon. Amazon is in the business of selling advertisements. In fact, advertising is its fastest-growing segment; it earned $3.4 billion in ad sales in the last quarter of 2018, a 95% year-over-year increase. It’s not hard to imagine Amazon using Eero data to offer suggestions for newer connected TV models on its website if it sees, through your Eero device, that you’re using a crappy, old one.
Amazon’s acquisition of Eero also shows how it’s become increasingly difficult for consumers to escape Big Tech’s grasp. Amazon can already see what most people are doing on the web, because Amazon Web Services provides cloud hosting services for nearly half of the internet, including Netflix and Pinterest. Eero could give it a more complete picture.
The internet giants want to rule everything around you and collect as much personal information as technically possible along the way — a strategy that’s worked exceedingly well for them. Our digital lives have become so ruled by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon that trying to escape their data collection is nearly impossible. Gizmodo reporter Kashmir Hill recently attempted to do so with great effort. “Ultimately, I learn that it’s simply not an option to block Amazon permanently,” Hill wrote of the dominance of Amazon Web Services.
For those who want to avoid Amazon or Eero, the alternatives don’t look promising. Internet service providers often offer routers to their customers that track analytics data and sell web browsing history and app usage history to advertisers.
Google collects device information through its own mesh network router, Google Wi-Fi. Information about a connected device, signal strength, and data usage are sent to Google, but the company specifically notes on its privacy page that its routers “do not track the websites you visit or collect the content of any traffic on your network.” However, that’s because it doesn’t need that router data. Google already gathers much of this information through its other products, like Chrome, Android, Gmail, and its ad network.
After current Eero customers voiced concerns about their privacy, Eero’s support Twitter account replied, “Eero and Amazon take customer privacy very seriously and we will continue to protect it. Eero does not track customers’ internet activity and this policy will not change with the acquisition.” An Amazon spokesperson commented to BuzzFeed News that the company has no plans to change Eero's policy at this time but did not clarify if it would amend the policy in the future.
The acquisition poses antitrust concerns as well, according to Bannan: “There hasn’t been much oversight of companies acquiring startups because they aren’t seen as competitors. But this is a mistake in the tech industry, because it allows the giants to acquire their competition while it is still nascent and to acquire more user data by combining the startup’s products with their own.”
Beyond getting access to more user data, acquiring Eero is a practical move, considering Amazon’s smarthome ambitions. Eero will help the tech giant get as much Amazon-branded hardware in your home as possible — and it may simplify often complicated gadget installation, one of the biggest pain points preventing consumers from buying smarthome devices. Eero can ensure customers' home networks have a good enough connection for all Amazon's devices to run reliably. Amazon could also, theoretically, integrate Eero technology into Echo devices, turning each smart speaker into a Wi-Fi mesh network node.
Dave Limp, senior vice president of Amazon devices, said as much in yesterday’s press release: “We are incredibly impressed with the Eero team and how quickly they invented a Wi-Fi solution that makes connected devices just work. We have a shared vision that the smart home experience can get even easier, and we’re committed to continue innovating on behalf of customers.”
An Amazon spokesperson said that the Eero deal hasn't closed yet, and integration conversations wouldn't happen until the acquisition is finalized. But being able to deeply integrate a connected product with the device that gives that product connectivity would significantly improve setup and performance. That kind of cross-device optimization is a big part of Apple’s competitive advantage. People love AirPods because the product doesn’t require the hassle of Bluetooth setup — it just works. If Amazon can do the same with other smarthome gadgets — something it’s already working on — then it will sell a lot more of them.
And if Echo speakers work better, then Amazon can sell more stuff in general. Artificial intelligence–powered bots that talk may be the future of computing, but ultimately Alexa’s job is to make buying from Amazon more seamless.
Amazon’s Eero is like a Trojan horse. Amazon will convince customers to invite the router into their homes with the device’s well-known, legitimate Wi-Fi speed-unlocking and coverage capabilities. In turn, the company will gain a little more ground in its pursuit to turn your household into an all-Alexa one.