iRobot, the maker of Roomba, made big news this week when an interview with its CEO mentioned plans to sell the map data of customers' homes to third parties. Today, the company launched damage control measures and the CEO is spreading assurances that this is all just a big misunderstanding.
The Roomba is generally regarded as a cute little robot friend that no one but dogs would consider to be a potential menace. But for the last couple of years, the robovacs have been quietly mapping homes to maximise efficiency. Now, the device's makers plan to sell that data to smart home device manufacturers, turning the friendly robot into a creeping, creepy little spy.
In a statement first shared with ZDNet, iRobot CEO Colin Angle wrote:
First things first, iRobot will never sell your data. Our mission is to help you keep a cleaner home and, in time, to help the smart home and the devices in it work better.
Pledging to never sell your customer's data is great. There are tons of issues that could arise from that and, let's face it, imagining faceless corporations knowing all the details of your inner sanctum is a really uncomfortable thought. But taking someone's word for it is never a good idea, and Angle's statement raised more questions for us.
We reached out to a spokesperson for iRobot, who tells Gizmodo that Reuters' original article about iRobot contained "an unintentional misinterpretation of Colin's statements." In fact, Reuters issued a correction today. The paragraph that set off a firestorm has now replaced the words "sell maps" with "share maps for free with customer consent." It reads in full:
Angle told Reuters that iRobot, which made Roomba compatible with Amazon's Alexa voice assistant in March, could reach a deal to share its maps for free with customer consent to one or more of the Big Three in the next couple of years. Angle added the company could extract value from those agreements by connecting for free with as many companies as possible to make the device more useful in the home.
We asked if iRobot currently shares all of the map data with the Amazon Echo if it is connected. Here's what they told us:
iRobot is not sharing mapping data with any third parties, including Amazon. Amazon does receive partial data from iRobot if a customer chooses to link their Roomba to Alexa, which is limited to the commands required to control the robot via voice control, such as starting a cleaning job, stopping a cleaning job, etc.
Regarding whether or not iRobot would make it a permanent policy to never share its full mapping data with smart devices, the spokesperson told us "We cannot commit on policy details of hypothetical future use cases or features."
Unfortunately, hypothetical future use cases are exactly what we're talking about. We've attempted to get more information about exactly what data is being stored by iRobot but company reps have avoided specificity.
The company did tell us that the Roomba's onboard camera is "physically separated from any wireless or wired transmission," and "the only data that is sent from the robot to the network — with customer consent — is information about cleaning jobs and lifetime cleaning statistics." Of course, just about anything a camera-enabled vacuum records while patrolling your home for dust bunnies could be considered information "about cleaning jobs."
The company would not share a complete list of data points it collects, but it did inform us that the map you see on your phone app is not the map that they see. "The map that the Roomba creates during a cleaning job is sent to the cloud where it is processed and simplified to produce a user-friendly map that ultimately appears in the iRobot HOME App," the representative told us.
The terms of service that users agree to are, thus far, unchanged. One troubling section says, among other things, iRobot may share your personal information with "other parties in connection with any company transaction" and "sale of all or a portion of company assets or shares." We asked if this section would be amended and were told twice that "this language is in the event a company ever purchased iRobot."
That's certainly true for many parts of that section, but the two highlighted clauses appear to leave open the option to sell off company assets (like valuable data) in "any company transaction" (like maybe a transaction in which it sells your data). And, oh yeah, some unknown company could buy iRobot.
What we've learned is that one guy said something about never selling your data, but mostly it's on you to decide whether or not you did your best to protect yourself. Some kind of change is coming to the terms of service, maybe. And iRobot doesn't want to tell you what data it has. But headlines will blare that the company has reversed its position.
Customer outrage may have caused headaches at the company this week, but it seems like investors noticed the new potential of iRobot. Stock prices started out at $US89.49 ($112) this week and at the moment are sitting comfortably in the $US107 ($134) range. Big data is big money, baby.