Read this before you buy a robot vacuum of any kind.
Between constant tracking of our internet activity, the “always listening” speakers in our homes and the smartphones glued to our hands at all (OK, most) times we’re awake, it’s understandable that nervous murmurs of George Orwell’s “1984” often come up in conversation these days.
Still, there’s a precarious balance between which data about ourselves we’re willing to give away in return for the convenience of asking a device to jot down our grocery lists or tell us the weather. The tech keeps getting smarter at a seemingly exponential rate, and it’s easy to be seduced by the modernity of it all.
Some companies have taken notice of mounting customer concerns and have adapted. Apple (AAPL) – Get Free Report, for instance, now asks permission before allowing apps to track your activity (although whether this actually does what it says it does is currently up for debate).
But there’s a fine, always shifting line between what we will and won’t tolerate in relation to our privacy — and now, iRobot (IRBT) – Get Free Report is under scrutiny in a situation that may cause many to pause and consider whether this technology is safe for home use.
Yes, Roomba is Watching You — Even on the Toilet
In December 2022, MIT Technology Review published a story about photos that surfaced online in 2020 taken by development versions of iRobot’s Roomba J7 series robot vacuum.
The photos included a person on the toilet, as well as a child lying on the floor. They surfaced after being captured and sent to Scale AI, a company that labels data used to train artificial intelligence.
But somehow those photos made it out into the world beyond that because gig workers in Venezuela were discovered sharing them on social media, according to MIT.
IRobot issued a statement after the report came out, essentially saying that the people who used the development units signed written agreements consenting that photos, video, and data could be captured.
“…[These are] special development robots with hardware and software modifications that are not and never were present on iRobot consumer products for purchase,” it reads.
The statement goes on to say the dev units were given to paid collectors and employees, and it was up to them to remove anything they deemed sensitive from any space the robot operated in.
In other words, if you go to the restroom, shut the door.
Other robot vacuums have come under accusations of data collection as well.
Anker-owned tech company Eufy surfaced in the news in December 2022 after information security consultant Paul Moore discovered a Eufy Doorbell Dual was sending user images and unencrypted facial data to the cloud without user consent.
Eufy responded by deleting many of its privacy commitments from its official website and releasing a statement that explains how Eufy is “taking a new approach” to home security.
“Our security solutions have been designed to operate locally and, wherever possible, avoid using the cloud,” it reads. “This includes storing user video footage locally and managing key processes like facial recognition and identity biometrics directly from the chip in the user’s device. … Our security technology model has never been attempted, and we expect challenges along the way.”
Amazon’s Move to Acquire iRobot
This news comes at an awkward time for both Amazon and iRobot. The retail giant announced it would acquire iRobot for $1.7 billion, making it Amazon’s fourth largest acquisition to date.
But the Federal Trade Commission requested more information from both companies on Sept. 19, 2022, after five commissioners petitioned the organization to do so.
“Allowing Amazon to absorb a competing smart home device business with access to incredibly detailed consumer data would endanger fair competition and open markets while also jeopardizing consumer privacy,” the petition reads.
Amazon has not announced when it expects to close the deal.