Your Roomba could be selling maps of your home to Google, Amazon, and Apple
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Your Roomba could be selling maps of your home to Google, Amazon, and Apple


Remember Roomba, the cute robotic vacuum cleaner who’s been navigating around your house for years? 

Well, its creator, iRobot, has hinted it may be selling Roomba-derived maps of your home to one or more of the Big Three — Amazon, Apple and Google’s Alphabet — in the next couple of years. 

“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,” said Colin Angle, iRobot’s CEO. 

Mapping your home

If the idea of a device spying on your flooring plan — along with other data about your home — and then selling that info to companies to help them improve their targeted ads seems particularly creepy to you, that’s because, well, it is creepy. 

Mapping and space in general is the next big step in the tech industry’s big push to make homes “smarter.”

Many of the “smart” devices already on the market — smart home lighting, thermostats, security cameras as well as other housecleaning robots — are actually pretty dumb when it comes to have a grasp of the surrounding physical space. That means they just move around or detect things randomly. 

Conversely, iRobot’s Roomba 900 not only uses short-range infrared or laser sensors to detect and avoid obstacles, but is also able to create a map of the environment thanks to a camera, new sensors, and software. 

The so-called Slam technology — simultaneous localization and mapping — allows Roomba build the map while simultaneously keep track of their own position in it. 

Privacy issues

It’s easy to see why big tech companies are interested in this data. 

In March, iRobot announced it’ll add Amazon’s Alexa voice commands to its Roomba 900 series robot vacuums for U.S customers in Q2 of this year.

Data derived from “robo-vacs” could help companies improve their smart speakers, for example, by mapping the room’s acoustics and provide ad hoc audio solutions; same for smart air-conditioning units or lighting that can adjust with the natural lights.

A quick look at iRobot’s terms of service shows that the amount of data iRobot collects from social media or third parties is pretty daunting. But even worse, when users sign to the company’s Home app, they basically already give iRobot the right to sell their data anyway. 

The privacy policy indeed states iRobot could share the users’ personal data with other companies owned by iRobot, third party vendors and affiliates, the government, and “any company transaction, such as a merger, sale of all or a portion of company assets or shares.”

Colin Angle, iRobot co-founder and CEO, speaks during the Japan launching presentation of new Roomba 980 vacuum cleaning robot in Tokyo Japan.

Colin Angle, iRobot co-founder and CEO, speaks during the Japan launching presentation of new Roomba 980 vacuum cleaning robot in Tokyo Japan.

Image: Hoshiko/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Naturally, that has raised privacy concerns among advocacy groups. 

“This is a particularly creepy example of how our privacy can be undermined by companies that want to profit from the information that smart devices can generate about our homes and lives,” Jim Killock, Executive Director of Open Rights Group said in a statement to Mashable.

“Smart household products may enable companies to obtain information that we consider to be private, such as floor plans of where we live. However, this is not necessarily personal data as protected under data protection law.

“Companies should treat data collected in people’s homes as if it is personal data and ensure that explicit consent is sought to gather and share this information. Taking an ethical approach, rather than complying with minimal legal requirements, would build trust with customers.”

Angle said iRobot would not sell data without its customers’ permission, but “he expressed confidence most would give their consent in order to access the smart home functions,” Reuters reports. 

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July 25, 2017
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