One of the problems with covering the decline of privacy in the digital age is the very concept that people should have the right to control how their information is bought, sold, and monetized is fundamentally opposed to most digital company business models (not to mention government policy). Now iRobot, which manufactures the Roomba, wants in on the action and plans to monetize the information its robots gather when they vacuum your carpet and/or chase the cat.
Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot Corp, is enthused about the idea of combining spatial data that the Roomba gathers about your home with the information from other devices like smart thermostats, cameras, or units like the Amazon Echo. “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,” Angle told Reuters.
To some extent, this is iRobot’s effort to reposition itself after taking fire from manufacturers hawking less-expensive Roomba clones. Investors have warmed to Angle’s idea, though, to the point that even some hedge fund managers that previously criticized the company’s direction have flipped. “I think they have a tremendous first-mover advantage,” William Mesdag, managing partner of Hedge Fund Red Mountain Capital, told Reuters. “The competition is focused on making cleaning products, not a mapping robot.”
Roomba vacuums have advanced markedly in recent years, adding sensors, better cameras, and software updates that allow a device to clean, return to its station to recharge, and then go back out to clean again, starting where it left off. These types of capabilities are a welcome addition to the platform, but not when they’re being used to turn it into a platform for gathering data and spying on people.
The argument in favor of using Roomba vacuums to drive data collection relies on believing the smart home can be considerably more sophisticated than it is today, with sound systems, lighting, air conditioning, and spatial mapping data all combined to offer a sublimely tuned living experience. But this means iRobot thinks people are fine with giving up their privacy to get…what, exactly? The ability to combine a Roomba and an Echo so Amazon can sell you more stuff because it knows the layout of your house?
iRobot’s lust for data, and investor approval of this approach, is just another example of how the fundamental concept of privacy is under attack. Bit by bit, companies nibble away at these ideas — no more anonymization here, a bit less control there — while simultaneously hinting these are things customers consciously agree to. If you want a smart home, or if you use social media, you are, ipso facto agreeing to share information about yourself that will be sold to third parties in ways you can’t control. Because, clearly, buying a TV set or pair of headphones means agreeing, in perpetuity, to give information about yourself to the manufacturer.
iRobot claims that their system will not sell data “without customer permission.” But that could simply mean the hardware won’t work if you don’t give it permission to sell your data. Typically, that’s how this goes. Sure, you have a choice, but it’s not a meaningful one. You can’t, for example, simply pay an extra $ 100 to own your data in perpetuity, or even a monthly fee to cover the benefits of smart home technology without data sharing to the larger environment.
If user data is so valuable to tech companies, individuals ought to have the right to either share in the profits companies gain from selling it, or to pay for their data to be kept private at a cost that reflects the wholesale value of their private data. Neither approach has won any broad interest from the tech industry, and I don’t expect they ever will.