Puttering around our homes while quietly sucking up dust, Roombas hardly seem threatening (except if you are a dog, that is). But while cleaning every dark corner of your home, these robotic vacuums have been diligently creating floor maps, and now Roomba is exploring the idea of selling that data to other tech companies.
Roomba could cut a deal to sell these maps to Amazon, Google or Apple later this year, Jan Wolfe reports for Reuters. "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," Colin Angle, CEO of Roomba's manufacturer, tells Wolfe.
These robovacs use short range IR or lasers to detect and avoid various obstacles, reports Wolfe. But in 2015 Roomba added cameras and mapping software to its 900 series, which allowed the bots to more efficiently cover a space. These same maps could also help enable devices like lights and thermostats in so-called "smart homes" to better adjust to their environments.
Currently, smart homes run "like a tourist in New York who never leaves the subway," Cornell University roboticist Guy Hoffman tells Wolfe. "There is some information about the city, but the tourist is missing a lot of context for what's happening outside of the stations."
While Angle's investors responded positively to the news, reports Alex Hern for The Guardian, privacy advocates expressed strong concerns about the plan.
“This is a particularly creepy example of how our privacy can be undermined by companies that want to profit from the information that smart devices can generate about our homes and lives," Jim Killock, head of the Open Rights Group, tells Hern. Killock worries that data protection laws may not explicitly limit actions like this that many people would consider invasions of privacy.
“Companies should treat data collected in people’s homes as if it is personal data and ensure that explicit consent is sought to gather and share this information," Killock tells Hern. "Taking an ethical approach, rather than complying with minimal legal requirements, would build trust with customers.”
Roomba's manufacturer will not sell data without the permission of its customers, Angle tells Wolfe, but he is certain that many users will give that consent. However, as Rhett Jones notes for Gizmodo, the terms of service for a Roomba appear to leave its manufacturer room to sell consumer data without their permission.
In the meantime, worried users can turn off internet sharing of their home's data. Besides, that way the maps are harder for other systems to get ahold of in case of a robot uprise.