Friday, July 28, 2017

Roomba: hoovering up your personal info

God knows, I’m no futurist, but many years ago I was on a panel at a tech conference and a question posed to the panelists was what we thought was a coming big issue of the future. My answer: privacy.

God knows, I had no business being on that panel to begin with. A colleague had made a last minute request for me to speak for him at the conference. Since I knew very little about the topic – beyond what was in his canned preso – I should have said ‘no, no, a thousand times no.’ But he was desperate and, with a guarantee that I’d have a tech resource in the standing by to whom I could lob any question I couldn’t answer, I said ‘yes.’ Well, the presentation went fine, as did the morning’s first panel. The questions were high level enough, and I knew just enough about the topic, that I could hold my own. And I could hold my own so well, in fact, that the stand-by techie decided to leave. Unfortunately, the afternoon questions became techier, and my answers to the audience turned into “this isn’t really my area of expertise” – as if the audience hadn’t gleaned that bit – or, if another panelist had answered before me, a variant of ‘what he said…’

The final question was the crystal ball one and, in talking about privacy, I think I acquitted myself quite well.

With all the data grabbing going on, I often think about privacy. Or lack thereof.

I use my debit card at the grocery store, so Roche Brothers and Whole Food know entirely too much about me, including that I’ll pay $2.99 for cherries, but won’t pay $4.99 for cherries if they were $2.99 the day before. Roche Brothers knows I like pumpernickel. Both stores know I like Tate’s chocolate chip cookies.

At CVS, despite the fact that I never take advantage of the so-called benefits of using it, I was generally scanning my CVS whatever card. Then I said to hell with it. Why should they know what toothpaste I like? So I no longer swipe the whatever card, and try to pay cash. (Which, at CVS, is becoming more difficult by the day. I anticipate that there will soon be a surcharge for paying with cash, since it’s more costly to handle (supposedly) than electronic payments, and, more to the point, because it deprives CVS of my information.)

Anyway, I thought about the privacy issue when I saw an article in the NYTimes on Roomba. Roomba, it seems, may be doing more than vacuuming under the sofa. It may be spying on you.

High-end models of Roomba, iRobot’s robotic vacuum, collect data as they clean, identifying the locations of your walls and furniture. This helps them avoid crashing into your couch, but it also creates a map of your home that iRobot is considering selling to Amazon, Apple or Google. Colin Angle, chief executive of iRobot, told Reuters that a deal could come in the next two years, though iRobot said in a statement on Tuesday: “We have not formed any plans to sell data.” (Source: NY Times)

Well, that’s clear.

Of course, as a non-Roomba owner, what Roomba does or doesn’t do is not my worry.

I do have a vacuum cleaner, but it’s a 20 year old Oreck. Plug it in, hang on, and away you go. It’s dumb as a rock. Which is exactly the way I prefer my appliances.

Fitbit knows how many steps I take a day. And, as mentioned, Whole and Roche know my grocery-buying habits. But that’s about it. (Other than, of course, that Google knows every website I’ve ever crashed into accidentally, on purpose, or accidentally on purpose.)

In the hands of a company like Amazon, Apple or Google, that data could fuel new “smart” home products.

That’s nice. More junk to worry about spying on us, potentially being hacked, and likely breaking down at some point.

Not to mention that:

…the data, if sold, could also be a windfall for marketers, and the implications are easy to imagine. No armchair in your living room? You might see ads for armchairs next time you open Facebook. Did your Roomba detect signs of a baby? Advertisers might target you accordingly.

Which is all much creepier than having the ads pop up based on your recent purchases. (You know, just because I purchased a pair of Asics online last week, doesn’t mean that I need another pair again this soon…)

“Just remember that the Roomba knows what room your child is in,” Rhett Jones wrote in Gizmodo. “It’s the one where it bumps into all the toys on the floor.” In its written response, iRobot said that it was “committed to the absolute privacy of our customer-related data.” Consumers can use a Roomba without connecting it to the internet, or “opt out of sending map data to the cloud through a switch in the mobile app.” “No data is sold to third parties,” the statement added. “No data will be shared with third parties without the informed consent of our customers.”

Key phrases here are “opt out” and “informed consent.”

How about “opt in”? And consent that’s not implied, or stems from permission granted by not reading some convoluted fine print policy.

We used to have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our own homes. That’s going out the window – the window no doubt sitting behind a fixture that’s recording every time you raise or lower your smart blinds.



Can’t say I didn’t warn you.

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