Roomba vacuums are the lazy man’s dream: robots that clean the house for you. But now they can map your home, and iRobot, the creators, are willing to sell those maps to Apple, Amazon, and Google. Are they infringing on your privacy?
Roomba: the current chariots of house cats and the hopeful future of vacuums everywhere. Actually, it’s been trying to be the future since September 2002, when the autonomous vacuum cleaners were first introduced. Gradually they have become better, and smarter. What once was a simple robot with 3 buttons to set room size, has now evolved to an app and WiFi-connected robot that has a visual simultaneous localization and mapping (vSLAM) navigation system, meaning it can map the dirtiest and cleanest part of the house, so in the future it will clean better there.
This also means it creates a detailed map of the floorplan of your home. It seems at first glance like a cool feature, it probably means it will clean better around your kitchen table, and run a second pass next to your dog’s water bowl. However, it also means that that map of your home is now available to iRobot, the company who makes the Roomba. And they have plans for it.
iRobot has announced tentative plans to sell the maps made by Roomba to companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon, the big players in the AI voice assistant market. (Maybe you forgot about Google cuz they didnt give themselves a name and a woman’s voice like Siri and Alexa.) The data from the maps would be useful to those companies because they could better market new products to consumers, integrating Roomba and other products to better create a seamless smart-home experience.
This enhanced smart home might be really appealing to many of us. Guy Hoffman, who is a professor of robotics at Cornell University, gave a few examples of what can be possible with this type of information: sound systems that could match home acoustics, air conditioners that can schedule airflow by room, or smart lighting that can adjust according to time of day and window position.
There are concerns with that data being stored, and what might happen if it gets stolen from iRobot’s servers. Potentially, a detailed map of a house could be stolen and sold as a commodity for planned robberies. Roomba could be showing thieves the fastest route from the back door to the safe at the same time as it cleans the hallway. I like to picture Lyle/Napster from The Italian Job hacking a Roomba unit to hall monitor while a theatrical heist goes down.
Improbable? Probably. But that doesn’t mean that privacy rights aren’t in discussion here. Though expertly tuned sound systems and ultra-specific HVAC are all luxury items we all could appreciate, the cost of giving up the privacy is much higher than we might think. From a cyber security standpoint, personal data security should be everyone’s number one priority. If your vacuum is a hole that has potential to be exploited, it should be carefully monitored.
The hard part would be that you wouldn’t have control over that data. If you wanted to use a Roomba vacuum, you would essentially be consenting to allow iRobot to use that data for their economic benefit, as determined in a statement made earlier this week:
“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.”
Whether you couldn’t live without one, or just prefer to watch cats ride around the kitchen floor, smart homes and their IoT gadgets are great ways to make life easier, or at least more fun, but they could come at a higher cost of privacy than we might think.