The Roomba Privacy Angle

Ron Knox, in response to Amazon’s acquisition of iRobot, makers of the Roomba:

This is also a straight-up data acquisition. The most advanced versions of Roomba collect information about your house as they clean.

It knows where you keep your furniture, the size of each room and so on. It’s a vacuum and a mapping device.

I think this thread is overblown, but it is an interesting angle I have been thinking about this weekend.

Benedict Evans:

The general point that perplexes me about threads like this is the idea that anyone wants to know trivial and random details about your life – that this has any economic value. “Amazon will know where your furniture is!” No, it won’t, but why on Earth would it care?

Rodrigo Ghedin:

Perhaps the co-founder and current CEO of iRobot could help us understand? From a 2017 Reuters interview of Colin Angle:

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.

At the time, iRobot had just made its Roomba robots compatible with Amazon’s Alexa. In the interview, Angle floated the possibility of sharing home maps with the three technology giants — Amazon, Apple, and Google —, a service that would be free of charge.

Good find from Ghedin. This Reuters story is fascinating because of its lingering effect. If you search the web for "colin angle" roomba privacy, you will find dozens of stories where Angle and iRobot’s privacy team distance themselves from its implications. The Reuters story was revised — according to metadata on the page — about four days after it was published and now carries this note at the top:

This July 24 story corrects paragraph 6 to read “share maps for free with customer consent” instead of “sell maps”.

Nevertheless, between July 24 and 28 2017, a rush of stories was published exploring the ramifications of a camera-equipped robot mapping out your house.

Maggie Astor, New York Times:

But the data, if shared, could also be a windfall for marketers, and the implications are easy to imagine. No armchair in your living room? You might see ads for armchairs next time you open Facebook. Did your Roomba detect signs of a baby? Advertisers might target you accordingly.

At the time, iRobot’s public relations people strenuously denied this will happen. I still think it is an unlikely possibility and an overreaction. But as businesses like Amazon try to blanket homes in microphones and cameras while selling advertisements and goods with basically no firewall between the two, is it any wonder imaginations are running wild? Amazon could assuage concerns by distancing its many businesses — which is completely counter to its goals, I know.