Let’s face it, vacuuming sucks. Throw in some pets or kids and this Sisyphean task can drain your soul. Well, hello Roomba! This robot vacuum does the work for you. These robot vacuums map your house, can tell the kitchen from the dinner room, and will vacuum with a "Hey Google, clean up under the table" voice command. A truly wonderful invention. And if you've been scarred by watching those videos where they smear poop all over the floor, your worries are (hopefully) over. Roombas learned how to avoid dog poo. Technological advances are truly a wonder. Poo aside, maybe the best thing about iRobot's Roombas is, they're actually pretty good at privacy and security. For now. Who knows if they'll stay that way after Amazon's purchase of iRobot goes through?
What could happen if something goes wrong?
iRobot and their robot vacuums have been the good guys when it comes to privacy. That’s why they made our “Best Of” list year after year. And why Consumer Reports named them the most privacy and secure robot vacuums they review back in 2021. Shoot, we even hired an independent cybersecurity firm to look into iRobot Roomba’s privacy and security in 2022 and they came back with a report that said, “Despite the fact that rigorous testing approaches and techniques were instigated against the Roomba Vacuum i3 … no issues of any kind were identified during the course of this review.”
So when we read that screenshots of a woman on the toilet recorded by a Roomba ended up on Facebook -- many people’s worst fear about robot vacuums -- we were pretty bummed. iRobot confirmed that the screenshots did come from Roomba recordings from 2020, but said they were from a test run of vacuums. They said the people using those vacuums signed special agreements that recordings would be sent back to the company for training. It’s not clear though whether these people knew that the videos could be watched, reviewed, and screenshotted by humans. (We’re guessing not.) And I’m sure that they could end up on social media definitely wasn’t part of the deal. Ouff, that's not "Best Of" behavior, iRobot. The good news is, those were test robots being used by people who had specifically consented to have them in their homes recording (but not leaking images of them on Facebook).
There’s more bad news for iRobot. Before the toilet fiasco, we were already a little worried. The reason we asked an independent cybersecurity firm to look into iRobot’s robot vacuum cleaners in the first place is because we wanted to confirm that they are as good at privacy and security as we thought (and it seems they are). Because not-very-good-guy Amazon announced in August, 2022 that they are acquiring good guy iRobot for about $1.7 billion (the Amazon deal hasn't gone through yet, but it could be finalized as soon as February 2024). Since then, the possibility of these two becoming one has become a full blown controversy that’s already costing iRobot.
iRobot currently makes it fairly clear they want to do a good job protecting and respecting all the data their little roving vacuum robots can collect. They don’t sell your data (neither will Amazon, but Amazon doesn’t need to as they are the advertising giant others pay to use the data they have on you to target you with ads and promotions). iRobot also says they won’t share your personal information for third party advertising (they may share some app and website usage info for targeted advertising…this is super common). This is good. However, we can’t say Amazon will do the same. Amazon wants to own that data on you to target you with more ads and sell you more stuff. As one privacy expert put it, “People tend to think of Amazon as an online seller company, but really Amazon is a surveillance company. That is the core of its business model, and that’s what drives its monopoly power and profit,” says Evan Greer, director of the nonprofit digital rights organization Fight for the Future.
There’s something else too. Regulators are wondering whether this deal would give Amazon an unfair advantage. While they have the green light from the UK, the European Commission and the FTC are conducting antitrust investigations. They worry that if this goes forward Amazon might use their ownership of iRobot to monopolize not just the robot vacuum market, but ecommerce and advertising too–more than they do already– by making use of all that extra data from shoppers’ homes.
All this makes it feel quaint that a few years back iRobot got into a bit of hot water because it appeared they were mapping users' homes with their Roomba robot vacuum cleaners with potential plans to sell that data. Since then, iRobot stepped up and made it a point to show they don't sell users' personal data about their lives or homes. And you can choose to not have map data transmitted to iRobot at all. All this is great…and shows why the news of the pending sale of iRobot to Amazon isn’t so great.
What’s the worst that could happen? Well, the sale of iRobot to Amazon will likely go through. Once Amazon takes over, iRobot's privacy could take a turn for the worst. And all those people who bought a Roomba partly because they were good at privacy could now have their personal information transferred over to Amazon as part of the sale. And now Amazon could have a floor plan mapping, objects in your home tracking, roving camera sending data back to the retail and ad targeting Big Tech giant. And, well, your privacy could never be the same. Dear Amazon, would you please not screw up iRobot’s robot vacuums and their strong privacy and security!?? Please! Can we just have one nice thing for privacy these days?
Tips to protect yourself
- Opt-out of the sharing of your personal information for cross-context behavioral advertising, by contacting at [email protected]
- Use two-factor authentication
- Limit your robot vacuum's data sharing
- Use strong passwords
- Keep your robot vacuum's firmware updated
- Do not sign up with third-party accounts. Better just log in with email and strong password.
- Chose a strong password! You may use a password control tool like 1Password, KeePass etc
- Use your device privacy controls to limit access to your personal information via app (do not give access to your camera, microphone, images, location unless neccessary)
- Keep your app regularly updated
- Limit ad tracking via your device (eg on iPhone go to Privacy -> Advertising -> Limit ad tracking) and biggest ad networks (for Google, go to Google account and turn off ad personalization)
- Request your data be deleted once you stop using the app. Simply deleting an app from your device usually does not erase your personal data.
- When starting a sign-up, do not agree to tracking of your data if possible.
What can be used to sign up?
Facebook and Google log-ins available.
What data does the company collect?
Name, email address, username and password, shipping address, billing information, and phone number; device and app usage data (specifically things like name, device number, battery life, mission information, device health and operations data); device environment data (specifically things like level of dirt, Wi-Fi name/credentials/signal strength, robot movement, floorplan and room names, existence and type of objects, floor type, other iRobot devices).
How does the company use this data?
How can you control your data?
What is the company’s known track record of protecting users’ data?
In January 2023, it was reported by MIT Technology Review that non-commercial, special development Roomba robot vacuums being test by iRobot paid testers recorded image of a woman on a toilet that later ended up on Facebook.
Child Privacy Information
Can this product be used offline?
User-friendly privacy information?
Links to privacy information
Does this product meet our Minimum Security Standards?
Data is encrypted in transit and at rest. The Roomba communicates with the iRobot cloud service using encryption. Robot information is stored separately from any customer information to de-identify the robot and its associated data from its owner.
iRobot runs a private bug bounty program, which means that anyone who finds a security issue and discloses it responsibly may get paid. They also hold hacking events to collaborate with the broad security research community.
Scholarly articles are available about the machine learning used to help Roombas navigate a room and to make recommended cleaning schedules.
Is this AI untrustworthy?
What kind of decisions does the AI make about you or for you?
Is the company transparent about how the AI works?
Does the user have control over the AI features?
A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?MIT Technology Review
Amazon's Takeover of Roomba-maker on Course for Approval by FebruaryGizmodo
The iRobot Deal Would Give Amazon Maps Inside Millions of HomesWired
Amazon subsidiaries worry data protection advocatesDeutsche Welle
How Amazon’s Acquisitions of iRobot and One Medical Could Affect Your PrivacyWirecutter
iRobot’s Roomba will soon be owned by Amazon, which raises privacy questionsThe Conversation
Amazon dominates the $113 billion smart home market — here’s how it uses the data it collectsCNBC
Will Amazon’s iRobot purchase turn your Roomba into a spy?Digital Trends
Amazon vacuums up Roomba maker iRobot, sparking immediate privacy concernsMashable
Robot vacuums are learning to avoid dog poop. But that’s not all they can see.The Washington Post
Is Your Robotic Vacuum Sharing Data About You?Consumer Reports
Your Roomba May Be Mapping Your Home, Collecting Data That Could Be SharedNew York Times
Is my robot vac spying on me? Data privacy, explainedReviewed
Here's what your iRobot knows about youAvast
Robot vacuums have a lot of dirt on you. Is yours sharing data?Komando.com
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