iRobot’s CEO defends Roomba home mapping as privacy concerns arise

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iRobot CEO Colin Angle has been talking about his company’s plans to map user homes with the Roomba for a while now, but a recently published Reuters interview has raised a number of new privacy concerns. Of particular note is a bit where the executive speculates that the company “could reach a deal to sell its maps to one or more of the Big Three [Amazon, Apple, Google] in the next couple of years.”

The pushback appears to have caught the company a bit off-guard, surfacing from an interview conducted back in May. iRobot has been perfectly upfront of about its plans to push Roomba’s mapping technology as the company works to make the robotic vacuum a key part of the connected home — but the notion of selling maps of users’ home to the highest bidding third-party is understandably concerning to privacy advocates.

Asked about its plans, the company offered comment from Angle, reiterating the original story’s assertion that the mapping is still opt-in. “iRobot takes [the] privacy and security of its customers very seriously,” Angle said in the statement given to TechCrunch. “We will always ask your permission to even store map data.”

The rest of the quote goes on to break down the role that mapping will take in the connected home. Angle followed up the statement with a Q&A that seems to imply that the company is still in the very early stages of these talks. The executive appeared to be floating the possibility of some future deal with Apple, Google or Amazon in the interview, rather than suggesting that the company was just waiting for the highest bidder to step forward.

“iRobot has not formed any plans to sell the data,” Angle added in the followup. “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.”

Likely this early pushback will cause the company to reexamine any conversations that might already be underway. Angle goes on to explain that the company has been in active discussions with Amazon and Google about its ongoing effort to add Alexa and Google Assistant functionality to the Roomba line. “Getting that done required conversations,” he explained. “This is a dynamic space and we can’t really say more than that.”

How exactly the opt-in will look to the end user remains to be seen — hopefully it will be more transparent than fine print at the bottom of some lengthy terms of service, detailing how and to whom data is sold. For the moment, it seems that the company may have gotten a bit ahead of itself in the discussion around the role the Roomba will play in the connected home.

But it’s for the best — these are exactly the questions we should be asking companies as we increasingly surrender our private domain to connected devices. It’s a given that buying into the smart home means offering up more private data to companies, but it’s important that users know precisely what’s on offer, so they can make informed decisions.