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 are learning 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 puchase of iRobot goes through?
What could happen if something goes wrong?
iRobot and their robot vacuums are one of the good guys when it comes to privacy. That’s why they make our “Best Of” list. And why Consumer Reports named them the most privacy and secure robot vacuums they review. Shoot, we even hired an independent cybersecurity firm to look into iRobot Roomba’s privacy and security 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.” Good work iRobot!
That’s the good news. Now for the worrisome news. The reason we asked an independent cybersecurity firm to look into iRobot’s robot vacuum cleaners 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. And this has us -- and many other experts -- concerned about the privacy of all the personal information these robot vacuums can collect on you and your home going forward.
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..
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.
It used to be the biggest concern you had with your Roomba was it rolling through dog poo on the floor and creating a huge mess. Now the new J series Roombas come with what they call P.O.O.P. (Pet Owner Official Promise). According to the company, the P.O.O.P promise means certain robot vacuums ”will steer clear of your pet’s waste as it gets down to its own business. If it doesn’t, we'll replace your robot for free.” Roomba accomplishes this poop detection with a camera and artificial intelligence. Does this raise some privacy concerns? Yes. Sensors for navigation are generally a safer bet than cameras in your home. However, we do like the measures Roomba takes to protect users from their cameras, like only recognizing a few objects (including poo) and shutting the camera off if it detects a human. Will Amazon keep these measures in place to protect their users? We don’t know.
What’s the worst that could happen? Well, the sale of iRobot to Amazon could (will likely) go through. And once Amazon takes over iRobot, they could turn it from a privacy success story to a privacy nightmare. 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
- 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.
- 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?
What data does the company collect?
Name, email, phone number, address
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?
No known incidents in the last 3 years.
Child Privacy Information
Can this product be used offline?
User-friendly privacy information?
iRobot has several privacy pages explaining its approach to privacy in simple language. It has Roomba-specific FAQs and information available.
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?
iRobot uses AI and machine learning to help certain iRobot Roomba robot vacuums and Braava jet robot mops with Smart Mapping capabilities to map and navigate a home. This technology also helps these same Smart Mapping robots to automatically detect and proactively suggest ‘Clean Zones’ around specific objects like couches, tables, and kitchen counters. To do this, iRobot’s software has been trained with hundreds of thousands of images of these common household objects taken from test home environments during our development process (note: no customer robots or customer data was used during this process). Our machine learning software running onboard the robot then uses this pre-trained ability to recognize these objects in the home to deliver the customer-facing feature. AI and machine learning also enables our connected robots to better fit within our users homes and schedules through features like recommended cleaning schedules based on the user’s previous cleaning patterns and, for our Smart Mapping robots, learning trouble areas of the home based on the robot’s experience and recommending specific ‘Keep Out Zones’ to the user.
Only the Roomba j7/j7+ and Roomba Combo j7+ can use its camera sensor to detect and avoid obstacles; which currently includes only electrical cords and pet waste. With a user’s express, opt-in consent, their Roomba j-Series robot will snap a photo of perceived obstacle and send the photo to the iRobot Home App for a user’s review. iRobot cannot view the images sent to the iRobot Home App unless a user specifically chooses to share an image with us. Users can choose to share any image they’d like - all of them, or none. Images that are shared with iRobot are used to improve iRobot's ability to train robots to avoid obstacles. Images that are not shared with iRobot are never viewable by iRobot and are deleted in 30 days.
Is the company transparent about how the AI works?
Does the user have control over the AI features?
The iRobot Deal Would Give Amazon Maps Inside Millions of HomesWired
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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