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Privacy Tech | Smart home mapping feature causes privacy panic, but should it? Related reading: Pokémon GO, augmented reality, and privacy




There are few things more sacred to a person's privacy than one's home. For one, it's enshrined in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures ..." 

So it's no surprise that some in the media are expressing privacy concerns about a new home mapping feature being touted by Roomba maker iRobot after an interview with Reuters where iRobot CEO Colin Angle described the next frontier for his company: a data-driven business plan ready to integrate with the smart home. 

The Roomba was one of the first consumer-facing robotic devices. Though early models randomly zoomed across the home in the hope that all areas had been cleaned, newer models feature smart mapping capabilities, driven by infrared lasers, internet-connected cameras, new sensors, and software that helps the machine track its own location within the home. It's a smart device that adds a lot of convenience. And with an onslaught of new smart home devices hitting the market, from voice-activated home assistants to smart lighting and music systems, it makes sense for iRobot to innovate its product further. 

"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. 

It's good to see Angle mention user consent, something they should have anyway, and something they'll need once the EU's General Data Protection Regulation takes effect next year. But knowing a household device like Roomba can provide other companies with a "rich map of the home" is, at least, a bit startling.

The next step, he says, is to sell that data to other big tech companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google, each of whom are selling smart home voice assistants. The idea is quickly boosting the company's stock prices as investors have sent iRobot stock to $102, up from $35 just one year ago. This gives the company a market value of $2.5 billion based on $660 million in revenue in 2016. Impressive numbers. 

But, as other companies pushing the data privacy envelope have previously experienced, iRobot finds itself in media headlines based on privacy concerns. The Guardian writes, the company "has found itself embroiled in a privacy row," while Gizmodo's headline reads: "Roomba's Next Big Step Is Selling Maps of Your Home to the Highest Bidder." Gizmodo's Rhett Jones characterized the technology as a "creeping, creepy little spy." 

Jones goes further when discussing the possibility of selling user data to companies like Amazon: "Maybe that doesn't unnerve you, but it probably should. This is all part of the larger quest for a few major companies to hoover up every bit of data about you that they can. Now, they want to know all about your living space. Going through the iRobot terms of service, you can see just how much data is already being collected on a daily basis just by clicking like on a Facebook page or visiting a corporate website. And that data will likely be just as insecure tomorrow as it is today." 

True, we are undoubtedly in a data-driven world that is constantly tracking our online searches, geolocation and product preferences. It's also true that many of the connected devices in the marketplace are notoriously vulnerable to hacking and manipulation. That's where privacy- and security-by-design comes in. The makers of Roomba have every right to develop ways of monetizing the data gathered in the home if they are transparent in their designs and diligent in collecting consent, but if privacy and security controls are not built in, those stock prices may reverse course. 

Though Angle said they would get user consent prior to sharing home mapping data, there are deeper questions that need answers: How will this consent be disclosed, in a convoluted and lengthy privacy notice that has take-it-or-leave-it conditions? Will the data collected about the home be encrypted, both at rest on the server, and in transit when being sold to third parties? Will it be GDPR-ready, meaning the collected data is portable and can be deleted or retracted by EU residents? Will the company require warrants prior to sharing data with law enforcement and government agencies? How much of the privacy implications of the device will be conveyed to users?

Hopefully, they've already thought about these questions and have built the appropriate answers into the software. 

Yet, the media fallout appears to have caught the company off guard, according to a report Wednesday from TechCrunch. In an email, Angle said, "iRobot takes [the] privacy and security of its customers very seriously. We will always ask your permission to even store map data." 

He then added in a follow-up email: "iRobot has not formed any plans to sell the data. We do hope to extract value from the information, but would only do so with the permission of our customers ... But to be clear, this is only if you opt in. It is still unclear what - if any - actual 'partnerships' would be needed to make that happen." 

A quick look at iRobot's soaring stock prices demonstrates the value data has in the marketplace. I don't blame Angle for wanting to dive into the smart home ecosystem. It's a smart play. I also don't blame some in the media and consumers for being concerned about the privacy and security implications of this technology. There are clear surveillance consequences that should concern consumers, even with all the added convenience of a clean home. 

Heck, even Gizmodo's Jones wants to buy a new Roomba after writing his column on the subject: "I never considered buying a Roomba until I started writing this article and thought about how much neater my apartment would be if I had one. Convenience trumps privacy every time." 

This is a classic case where a great privacy team can be a business enabler. If a privacy pro is involved each step of the way, consulting on the acquisition of consent and making sure data is tagged with metadata describing the possibilities of its use, Roomba can zoom into the new world of data monetization while keeping its customers, Wall Street, and the press happy. If, however, they stumble forward without these questions in mind, the public opinion backlash and financial hit could completely derail the company's plans.

And that would be quite the mess to clean up. 

photo credit: wonderkris Roomba Art via photopin (license)


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