A lot has been said about Amazon’s plans to build its Africa headquarters and less said about its products.
The reality is that whether there’s success in building a brick-and-mortar HQ or not, there’s little that can be done to stop the Amazon DNA in South Africa.
The fight against building on heritage land in Cape Town may be worthy, however, there’s something that should be of greater concern for South Africans.
As Amazon plans to set up its online marketplace next year in South Africa there’s a need to be aware of the products that will come with the Amazonification of South Africa.
Some of those products are robots that collect citizens’ data in a way that we’ve never experienced before.
Amazon is planning to acquire iRobot, a company that produces machines (vacuums) that clean homes and at the same time collect data about homes.
The same company has a history of building military objects. The vacuum machines, known as Roombas, work in part by using sensors to map the homes they operate in.
If Amazon succeeds in acquiring this company it will form part of other robots that are already good at taking a look at what is happening inside people’s homes.
The e-commerce giant recently acquired video doorbell company Ring in 2018 and Wi-Fi router-maker Eero. Speakers and other devices with AI assistant Alexa can now control thousands of smart home devices.
As indicated in the past few weeks, Amazon is also planning to acquire a primary care chain, One Medical, which if approved would put the health data of millions in the US in its keeping.
Some of these products are not yet in use in South Africa, however, with the establishment of the local marketplace they may proliferate in this country.
It’s important to understand now what Amazon is doing in other countries to get a sense of what it may bring locally when it has a local presence. When one considers the history of this company, a clear picture of what’s coming emerges. Amazon has a track record of making or acquiring technology that makes those concerned with data privacy uneasy.
In 2020, Amazon introduced a home security drone, and recently a company that’s forged partnerships with thousands of police and fire departments admitted to sharing home video footage with law enforcement without a warrant.
All these factors combined should raise alarm bells for those who are about to welcome this tech giant.
The benefit of being a country that is laggard and slow at adopting technologies is that there’s a benefit of observing tech harms before they hit our shores.
Knowing what Amazon is already doing in other parts of the world should prepare local legislators as well as society to create safeguards against such tech harms.
Observation of Amazon tells us that it’s not just a company that sells products. One activist, Evan Greer, described the company as follows: “People tend to think of Amazon as an online seller company, but really Amazon is a surveillance company.
That is the core of its business model, and that’s what drives its monopoly power and profit.”
South Africa is already limping in terms of how big tech companies have collected their citizens' data. What Amazon will bring with its products will just add fuel to this situation.
Granted Amazon is not alone, however, the backlash against this tech giant on its plans to build its Africa HQ has shielded something that requires even more focus.
Amazon may just decide to build elsewhere as it's currently doing by setting up its marketplace online. Such a process will be great for tech jobs in South Africa and probably bring great innovation vibrancy.
It may also bring data harm at a scale never seen before.
Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of FastCompany (SA) magazine.