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.
It's not going to mow your lawn, but the freshly revealed, wifi-friendly Roomba 980 can be controlled by your smartphone, plus uses a camera and sensors to create a map of your home.
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. And, according to Reuters, that data is the future of its business strategy:
"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 [iRobot CEO Colin] Angle.
Angle told Reuters that iRobot, which made Roomba compatible with Amazon's Alexa voice assistant in March, could reach a deal to sell its maps to one or more of the Big Three in the next couple of years.
If a company like Amazon, for example, wanted to improve its Echo smart speaker, the Roomba's mapping info could certainly help out. Spatial mapping could improve audio performance by taking advantage of the room's acoustics. Do you have a large room that's practically empty? Targeted furniture ads might be quite effective. The laser and camera sensors would paint a nice portrait for lighting needs that would factor into smart lights that adjust in real time. Smart AC units could better control airflow. And additional sensors added in the future would gather even more data from this live-in double agent.
And while Amazon seems like an obvious buyer — the kind that would pay huge money to shut out its competitors — don't forget that Apple has its Siri speaker coming and it has a lot of catching up to do. The kind of data that iRobot is offering would give any developer a huge opportunity to fine tune the experience.
Maybe that doesn't unnerve you, but it probably should. This is all part of the larger quest for a few major companies to hoover up every bit of data about you that they can. Now they want to know all about your living space. Going through the iRobot terms of service, you can see just how much data is already being collected on a daily basis just by clicking like on a Facebook page or visiting a corporate website. And that data will likely be just as insecure tomorrow as it is today.
The question for iRobot and other manufacturers who are working with robovacs that use mapping is: Will users reject their product in favour of cheaper devices that offer more privacy? Angle doesn't think that will be a problem. He tells Reuters that user data won't be sold without permission and he thinks most people will want to take advantage of the greater functionality.
At a glance it might seem like there's only a narrow set of circumstances for third parties to get a hold of your info, but in reality, these guidelines give the company a ton of freedom. It can share your data internally, with subsidiaries, third party vendors and the government upon request. While a section about sharing data with third parties for marketing purposes specifies that the user must give consent, there's this separate bullet point below that:
[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.
Depending on a court's interpretation of that language, it would appear that your consent isn't necessarily required if iRobot wanted to sell its user data in bulk to Apple. That doesn't mean it would go forward with such a transaction without notifying users first.
And that's the thing. If a company isn't using simultaneous localisation and mapping (or SLAM, as the mapping technology used by Roomba and its competitors is known), their robovac is probably inferior. If a company is making a robovac that uses the advanced tech, big data is the business model it should be thinking about. People will likely click "agree" to whatever terms are put in front of them. Hell, I never considered buying a Roomba until I started writing this article and thought about how much neater my apartment would be if I had one. Convenience trumps privacy every time. Just remember that the Roomba knows what room your child is in — it's the one where it bumps into all the toys on the floor.