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Many consumers leave their house in the morning to go to work or school, leaving their automatic vacuum turned on so that when they arrive home, their floors are pleasantly clean and dirt-free. But to function effectively, these robotic vacuums, such as those sold by iRobot under the brand name Roomba, must develop maps of the layout of people’s homes, so that they can avoid bumping in to walls or propel themselves down hallways. Is there a privacy concern associated with devices that “vacuum up” that sort of information?

The question became particularly salient recently, when the chief executive of iRobot allegedly noted that the company was working on a deal to share information about consumers’ homes with outside companies such as Amazon or Google. The company quickly retracted the assertion, claiming that what the executive really meant was that it may be possible, in the future and only with customers’ consent, to share such information. But the genie was out of the proverbial bottle.

In response, observers expressed their concerns that as a Roomba learns the layout of the house, it can gather all sorts of other information too. It knows if there are pets in the house, based on the amount of animal hair it encounters; it likely learns if there are children, according to whether it bumps into a lot of toys. With such information, marketers could target specific pet- or child-related offerings to customers. Another opportunity could arise if the Roomba were able to discern that, say, the dining room only contained two chairs. Marketers likely would be very interested in such information, because it could prompt them to issue a good deal on a new dining room suite.

The overall layout of the home also might provide information about other consumer characteristics, such as an estimated income level. Combined with location information, these data draw a quite accurate and detailed picture of the consumer—more detailed than some users might be comfortable sharing, whether with iRobot or the marketing partners with which it might someday share the data.

Although iRobot is quick to assure users that it would never share these data without permission, external observers note that the concerns go beyond immediate owners. If a homeowner agrees to share her or his house’s layout, but then sells the home, the information already has been shared. The new owner may not agree to such dispersion of the information, but it already has taken place.

Another concern involves the potential uses beyond product marketing. For example, information about door locations could give insurers details that they might use to deny claims following a theft or fire. Legal precedent has established that U.S. citizens have a legitimate expectation of privacy within their own homes. But what happens when they invite a robot to make a map of those homes? Are their claims to privacy automatically subverted?

Discussion Question:

  1. Are people’s privacy rights superseded if they agree to share personal information with in-home robots? Why or why not?

Source: Maggie Astor, “Your Roomba May Be Mapping Your Home, Collecting Data that Could be Shared,” The New York Times, July 25, 2017