Is Your Roomba Spying on You?

Ever feel like somebody’s always watching you? That could be because new reports show that our technology is, actually, spying on us — including our fancy new vacuums.

It’s not just our pets who have reason to be skeptical of our Roombas anymore — new announcements by the company’s parent company, iRobot, show that their current business strategy is to collect spatial data (home floor plans and more) from their customers… “with consent.”

“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,” iRobot CEO Colin Angle told Reuters.

And that vision has its fans, from investors to the likes of Amazon.com, Apple and Alphabet/Google who are all pushing artificially intelligent voice assistants as smart home interfaces. According to financial research firm IHS Markit, the market for smart home devices was $9.8 billion in 2016 and projected to grow by 60 percent this year, which may account for why iRobot’s stock has soared since the announcement.

Privacy concerns over the definition of that “consent” have caused a stir this week, though, with some vocal critics (nee whistleblowers) at the New York Times and Gizmodo, among others, now calling for consumer protections and a “buyer beware” warning.

Gizmodo says that while it may seem like the information that a Roomba could gather is minimal, there’s a lot to be gleaned from the maps it’s constantly updating. It knows the floor plan of your home, the basic shape of everything on your floor, what areas require the most maintenance, and how often you require cleaning cycles, along with many other data points.

Sure, using your home’s floor plan data and customized upselling techniques based on your personalized cleaning cycles and your specific needs could have consumer benefits, such as money- or time-saving efficiencies, but any fan of Ray Bradbury or 2001: A Space Odyssey knows why the news should also be a bit troubling.

Albert Gidari, director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, told the New York Times that if iRobot did sell the data, it would raise a variety of legal questions.

Mr. Gidari asked, “What happens if a Roomba user consents to the data collection and later sells his or her home — especially furnished — and now the buyers of the data have a map of a home that belongs to someone who didn’t consent. How long is the data kept? If the house burns down, can the insurance company obtain the data and use it to identify possible causes? Can the police use it after a robbery? The Supreme Court has held that Americans have ‘a reasonable expectation of privacy in your home.’ Once your home is turned inside out, does that reasonable expectation of privacy dissipate?”

Does this new information give you pause, or will you continue outsourcing your vacuuming to robots? Tell us in the comments.

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