Culture

Roomba Wants to Map our Homes and Sell the Data

By Chris Bartle (CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Add iRobot, the maker of Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners, to the list of companies that put greed before customer privacy. You’d think selling us expensive vacuum cleaners that maneuver around our home, cleaning by themselves, would be a fine business. But, no, that’s not enough.

Colin Angle, iRobot CEO, told Reuters that iRobot is considering the sale of our home mapping data to other companies such as Google, Apple, and Amazon. As the robotic vacuum cleaner travels throughout our home picking up dirt, it’s also picking up data that includes room dimensions, room and home layouts, and all of the furnishings, and transmitting it back to the company.   Angle believes he can sell this data to these companies to help them with services they might offer.

Angle explained in his interview, “There’s an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home that the user has allowed to be shared.”

Needless to say, his comments did not go over too well with privacy advocates and some of his customers. While Angle says “allowed to be shared” and their terms of service allow Roomba owners to opt out of data sharing, the fine print buried on their site gives them permission to share your personal information without permission:

We may share your personal information with other parties in connection with any company transaction, such as a merger, sale of all or a portion of company assets or shares, reorganization, financing, change of control or acquisition of all or a portion of our business by another company or third party or in the event of bankruptcy or related or similar proceeding.

And, of course, once they share it with another company, they don’t take responsibility for what that other company does with it.

In response to email questions posed by the site Mashable, Angle offered more details.

Mashable: I read the Reuters interview you gave regarding selling home mapping info and wanted to get some clarity on a few points.

Colin Angle: iRobot takes privacy and security of its customers very seriously. We will always ask your permission to even store map data. Right now, iRobot is building maps to enable the Roomba to efficiently and effectively clean your home. In the future, with your permission, this information will enable the smart home and the devices within it to work better.

Mashable: I assume that the data you capture only covers rooms you clean with the Roomba. Is there any plan to extend that capture using the vacuum in a sort of roam mode?

Angle: The data we capture only covers the rooms we clean.

Mashable: Are you looking to actually sell that data en masse, or open a location API that other smart devices can tap into so they can use your VSLAM data on a per-home basis?

Angle:  The Roomba does not send images used for navigation to the cloud. We have not formed any plans to sell the data. We do hope to extract value from the information, but would only do so with the permission of our customers. For example, if you wanted your home to understand which connected lights were where in which rooms so your Alexa would work better, your Roomba would be able to provide that if you’re opted in. It is still unclear what, if any, actual “partnership” with, in my example Amazon, would be needed to make that happen. It could just be another reason to own a Roomba rather than a competitive product.

Mashable: Have you actually had any conversations with Apple, Google, or Amazon regarding this data? I know you thought a deal could happen in the next 2 years, but that’s a pretty long timeline.

Angle: We talk with many companies about their visions of the smart home and how we can work together.

If you’ve not noticed, we are being invaded by all sorts of devices that want to record us, photograph us, and track us and sell that information to others. We have no say in who they sell it to and what others will do with that data or how well they’ll protect it. There are smart TVs, smart speakers, thermostats and security cameras. The vacuum cleaner is just another addition to corporations invading our privacy for monetary gain.

The explanation that’s always used is to “make our experience with the product better.” But ultimately it’s for the company’s gain and at our expense.

We should always be wary when we buy a product that’s connected by WiFi to the cloud when that connection is not required for the product to function. More times than not it’s to collect data for someone else’s benefit.

Can any company be trusted? Among all of the major high tech companies, Apple is the most respectful of our privacy. They don’t sell our data, they don’t store it indefinitely on the cloud, and their messaging service is encrypted, readable only by the recipient. (On the latest iPhone operating system, iOS11 beta, it continuously alerts you with a flashing banner when you are being tracked by Google, one of the most notable offenders.) But Apple is the exception, not the rule. It seems as long as there’s money to be made, most everything we do is for sale.