Roomba, iRobot, big data, internet of things, algorithms, maps, privacy, artificial intelligence, internet of things, data management, data protection, democracy, private life, data management, wasteless future

Colin Angle, iRobot CEO

iRobot, the maker of Roomba cleaning robot, made big news last month when an interview with its CEO mentioned plans to sell the map data of customers’ homes to third parties. The company immediately launched damage control measures and the CEO is spreading assurances that this was all just a big misunderstanding. It all started with an interview in Reuters, in which the company’s chief executive Colin Angle gave the clear impression that iRobot was selling consumers’ home mapping data. Later on, in a statement first shared with ZDNet, iRobot CEO wrote: “First things first, iRobot will never sell your data […].There’s no doubt that a robot can help your home be smarter. It’s the data it collects to do its job, and the trusted relationship between you, your robot and iRobot, that is critical for that to happen. Information that is shared needs to be controlled by the customer and not as a data asset of a corporation to exploit. That is how data is handled by iRobot today. Customers have control over sharing it. I want to make very clear that this is how data will be handled in the future”.

Reuters in fact issued a correction, which on one hand means they admit to the misunderstanding. One the other hand, though, 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”. This is much less than the drastic change one would expect, and iRobot managed to create further questions about their privacy policy.  Gizmodo reached out to the company asking whether the exact words “never sell customer data” could be integrated in the policy in writing, ensuring the customers once and for all. But the answer they had to settle with was not clear. “There will be language in our privacy policy to address this concern,” a company spokesperson replied. When asked if iRobot currently shares all of the map data with the Amazon Echo if it is connected, the company maintained that “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 said the company cannot commit on policy details of hypothetical future use cases or features. In the terms of service the customers agree on, it is stated that “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.” These two sections highlight that the right to sell data is in fact held by the company, but the representative said “this language is in the event a company ever purchased iRobot.”

To sum up, we have a CEO committed not to sell any personal data with third parties and seemingly opposed to data exploit by large corporations in general, whereas the policy states otherwise, apparently because the company itself might be sold eventually in a buyer not so interested in privacy concerns. And iRobot doesn’t want to tell you what data it has, avoiding any specification. But headlines will blare that the company has reversed its position. Customer outrage may have caused headaches at the company this month, but it seems like investors noticed the new potential of iRobot. Stock prices started out at $89.49 this week and at the moment are sitting comfortably in the $107 range. At this point it seems fair to ask what is the point in selling a smart cleaning device, such as a Roomba, if not data collection. We are not talking about a company interested in dusters and mops, but rather a high tech designer of cleaning robots able to connect to the internet, to AI devices like Amazon’s Alexa etc. For some customers no doubt the ability to manage cleaning jobs in their house from an application in their smart phones is an asset that may come in handy. But big money is now on big data, and data exploiting corporations might certainly find a valuable asset in a data-driven device constantly inside one’s inner sanctum.

1 Comment
  1. toilet paper 6 years ago

    With the development of intelligence, Robot can help us to many things, such as sweep dust, do washes and so on. When we want the machine to be more helpful, we may need to provide the information of ourselves. So, protecting our privacy is becoming necessary.

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