Roombas and dirty work: A perfect match

Roombas are a great idea. Circular robots that will vacuum up all the crud on your floor while you’re at work? And they automatically go back to their base for recharging when the battery runs low so they’re always at the ready to clean up? Awesome!

Turns out, for a day or two, it seemed our little cleaning buddies had a part-time job spying. Talk about bad robots.

Roombas “learn” the layout of the rooms they clean. This makes the cleaning process more efficient because time isn’t wasted bumping into walls or furniture. But when Colin Angle, the chief executive of iRobot Corp, Roomba’s parent company, suggested the spread of smart home technology could evolve into Roombas sharing floor plan information to third parties, people freaked out.

“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,” he told Reuters.

Hey Alexa, clean this data

Now that Apple and Amazon have their digital assistants, Siri and Alexa respectively, in so many gadgets and homes, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a Roomba could let Amazon know that its owners’ carpet is getting a little threadbare, for example.

“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,” the updated Reuters article reads.

Reuters updated the article because the original statement suggested Roomba would be giving this personal, private, in-home data away to anyone and everyone interested in picking it up through a smart home’s internet network.

Cue the screaming.

It might be nervous shrieking from consumers, but investors are screaming with glee, according to the same article. “So far investors have cheered Angle’s plans, sending iRobot stock soaring to $102 in mid-June from $35 a year ago, giving it a value of nearly $2.5 billion on 2016 revenue of $660 million.”

The first Roomba model to feature Wi-Fi connectivity arrived in 2015, by the way. Have you had yours that long? If so, your little circular cleaning pal has collected and refined this information for two years.

Angle thinks people will be happy to share the blueprint information of their homes to tech companies in exchange for, what else, more convenience.

Want to opt out? Roombas might sweep that choice under the rug

Of course, here again we have the “if you don’t like it, turn it off” option. But Gizmodo and The Verge note iRobot might be able to sell your personal information anyway.

“Roomba owners can opt out of cloud-sharing functions within the iRobot Home app, but technically, the iRobot terms of service and privacy policy say they have the right to share your personal information,” The Verge writes.

Gizmodo directs those with privacy concerns to this little gem of a passage: “[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.”

Trying to clear the air

Naturally, in light of the seriously bad publicity this suggestion gave iRobot, the company went into full crisis mode.

In a letter to ZDNet, Angle writes that “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.” He goes on to say that “information that is shared needs to be controlled by the customer and not as a data asset of a corporation to exploit.”

Further, if someone actively and voluntarily decides to hook up a Roomba with a smart home network, “we will also require your permission, and we will always ensure secure means of communication between devices,” he says.

As much as I hate cleaning my floors, I’m sticking with an old-fashioned broom and mop. I know they’re not paying attention.

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