Your Roomba is Sending the Layout of Your House to iRobot HQ

I apologize for the clickbait title but with the fact being that I heard people fearing over this on Tumblr and in our course textbook within the week I considered it a ponderable subject for this blog post. Also, my clickbait title isn’t exactly false. Unless you set a Roomba device not to in the app, Roombas will send the mapping data of your house to the cloud, where it’s compiled with other data to make a map for the app. So yes, the Roomba is sending the data to iRobot headquarters, which despite the company’s name being so close to the Will Smith movie, is not planning to use the information to break into everyones homes and start the robot revolution. 

However, those that raise the concern around Roomba and other products that collect data in similar ways are likely correct in raising the alarm bells. I know that when I first read the bit in Mary Chayko’s book Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media and Techno-Social Life where she raises the concern about Roomba’s data collection, I laughed. She writes:

“Digital sites and apps may seem free to visit or use, but a bounty of personal information is generally provided during such visits. Even as the iRobot “Roomba” is sed to vacuum a floor, information about the items in that person’s house (and their mapped locations) is being collected and could theoretically be shared and sold; imagine ads for armchairs following you across the internet simple because your Roomba has detected that you do not own one!”

Mary Chayko, Superconnected

I had read that bit about a day afte having stumbled upon some folks on Tumblr fear-mongering over the Roomba for the very same reason and (in my assumption) a very reasonable user came in and laughed away concerns noting how Roombas can’t collect much information and only use it to make Roombas work better and that previous models of the Roomba would get stuck easily in many homes because the designers and machines didn’t have adequate testing data and to solve that data problem the designers added data collection. Naturally, with the biases of reading that post earlier, I laughed off some of Chayko’s warning. Since, I’ve changed my mind, to an extent. I’ve read more up on the concerns of data privacy and the millions companies are making in the era of surveillance apitalism, much from Chayko’s book. 

During the week I also watched The Social Dilemma, which explores the many ethical concerns around the current technological landscape through dramatization and interviews with several major thinkers on the topic. One such thinker is Joe Toscano, founder of the Better Ethics and Consumer Outcomes Network (BEACON), and former Experience Designer at Google, who left Google in 2017 due to ethical concerns. Toscano has a whole TED Talk about his concerns and possible solutions that I watched shortly after watching the documentary. In the talk he stresses that data collection is not simply automating what the tech industry deems as low cost menial work (like the housekeepers that predated to Roomba), but also other jobs to let companies hire less workers and make more money while the labor market becomes even more destabilized. Most frightening to me was the information that Adobe CC (who I thought couldn’t possibly hate designers more than it already does by becoming a subscription service in 2013) collects data from its users which will be used in Adobe Sensei which will automate parts of the creative process, likely eliminating jobs in an already incredibly competitive job market that I am going to school for. 

The technology we use collects data on every thing that we “give it permission” to do, and the companies that hold this data are only going to use it to make more and more money with no regard for the consequences on the users’ lives unless we change how these companies are allowed to operate. From Your Roomba May Be Mapping Your Home, Collecting Data That Could Be Shared by Maggie Astor, the Supreme Court worries that once we allow the information about the inner maps of our homes to be something that companies can record, share or even sell, other privacies could be at risk due to the precedent. 

I recommend visiting https://www.thesocialdilemma.com/take-action/, as it relates heavily to the material of the section of Chayko’s book we just read through, and it’s less of a time sink than the documentary (another added bonus is those cringe-worthy dramatizations are not in the website).

Posted on October 11, 2020, in Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. My freshmen are writing papers evaluating a documentary film of their choosing and a couple have chosen The Social Dilemma. I need to watch it ASAP and appreciate your connection of its content to Chayko’s book. I have also seen some critiques of it as well: https://www.theverge.com/interface/2020/9/16/21437942/social-dilemma-netflix-review-orlowski-sarah-zhang-memo-facebook-buzzfeed

    Nevertheless, I wanted to let you know yours isn’t the only 745 post that references the roomba: https://745techprofcomm.wordpress.com/2017/11/05/rhetoric-around-the-house/ 🙂
    I still don’t think mine shares any data since I’ve never downloaded the app, but as I mention in the comments to Jennifer back in 2017, I am still leery of Alexa, Siri, and now those Ring doorbells. Actually, my new Theragun massager has an app that I’ve never used either so I wonder if it would share that data with the company to track which muscles I’m targeting with it. Eek?!?

    • Ooh, that articles “after school special” description of the fictionalized parts it’s so appropriate. Reading through it seems a lot of the criticisms are around what the documentary chose to highlight versus what it chose to downplay. The documentary put way too much emphasis on algorithms if you ask me, especially with those cheesy dramatizations. I genuinely think if the dramatizations were to be cut it would almost be a completely different film.

      I’m sure whatever data a massager would be able to send, without a camera or anything like that, are things like pressure and time usage. It’s interesting how much luxury could come out of this kind of automated user testing. I know I worried over Adobe Sensei in my post, but just earlier this week I learned how to use Adobe XD which automates a lot of the more frustrating and time-consuming parts of the design process, so maybe the robot isn’t coming to steal my job? Maybe it will just be an assistant, fingers crossed.

  2. Hi Jackie,
    I, for one, enjoy the clickbait-style title to your article. Frankly, it’s titles like these that get people to stop and read – which is hard to do nowadays. I don’t own a robot vacuum, so while reading Chayko this week, the thought of the robot collecting data on my home was a shock. I have no idea why. I spend a good deal of my week looking into third-party apps and trying to determine their data collection practices. Even I, knowing how slimy apps can be with our data, never expected the friendly like robot cleaning the floor to be guilty of the same practices. But everything is a trade-off and of course, I should have been more skeptical.
    My husband recently watched The Social Dilemma, I’m glad you brought it up! He also mentioned the cringy dramatizations -lol. Regardless, it led us down a fascinating conversation about app data collection and social media privacy. Although many apps are free, the tradeoff is your data. Tinder is a popular app used by many, but primarily by the college-age students, I work with. It’s free, but also, it’s not. Tinder collects data that includes your sexual interests and communications you’ve shared with others. You can request your data information from Tinder, which is just what one user did with a privacy activist and a lawyer. What she received was 800 pages of her private communications with other Tinder users. The app knew everything about her from swipes to fetishes. What’s a tad bit more terrifying is the Grindr app which is a dating app for gay, bi, and trans people. The information shared on Grindr is incredibly sensitive data because it can include health conditions such as HIV. This information is incredibly private and could be used negatively against the user. Yet, Grindr collects this and keeps it in their user profile data. But what are other apps collecting on us? There is truly an app for everything, meaning, there is an app out there collecting data on one, potentially private, aspect of our life. As we dig further into app data collection, Chayko’s warnings hold more weight. If the vacuum knows what my house looks like, what has my health app figured out?

    Tinder Data article: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/26/tinder-personal-data-dating-app-messages-hacked-sold

    • What horror-striking information about Tinder and Grindr! My girlfriend and I met a year and a half ago over OkCupid, and at the time I loved how much the app would let you filter choices and answer questions about values, kinks, lifestyle, etc. but now I’m terrified that company just has that information about us? As well as our early communications? Oof.

  3. Kim Smith mccroryk0613

    Hi Jackie,

    How on earth can my Roomba still be so crappy at its job, given that it’s supposedly improving with each activation from the app? It takes 90 minutes to do my bedroom well!

    Anywho, like Emily, I too thought the Social Dilemma was cringy – at best! I walked away from it after about a half hour. It was too ridiculous. I laughed at the dramatizations and was frustrated in how they overshadowed valuable content. Even so, data mining is definitely something to consider – though I didn’t know Grindr was so tangled, I did read an article about reverse engineering TikTok: https://www.digitalinformationworld.com/2020/06/tiktok-app-alarming-privacy-aspect.html
    “TikTok does not want users to know how much information it collects and the security implications for all that data together are enormous. All of their analytics requests are encrypted, and the keys change with every update. They have also configured the system so that if a user blocks communication to their analytics host the app will not function”

    There’s an entire subreddit going further down this rabbithole: https://www.reddit.com/r/tiktok_reversing

    I am more careful about what I download, especially when it comes to trendy social media apps like TikTok, Snapchat, etc. Even so, I can’t say I care a ton about data collection in general. Online habits are valuable revenue tools, and we as Americans are super-consumers of products and content. I joke that I’m too boring to provide any interesting data, but I also know I should stand up for privacy rights. It’s hard knowing where to start, though.

    • Yeah, I’m really glad people like Toscano are out there seeing the issue with all this data collection and are actively trying to fix it.

  4. Man, this is the third post I’ve read that is saying that Social Dilemma wasn’t worth the time. I haven’t watched it yet, my it’s in our queue! Maybe I’ll just have to go into it knowing I might be walking away quickly. I enjoyed your post this week Jackie as it’s something that I think about a lot. I never knew that my apps were collecting my data until honestly about a year ago when I heard it on a radio talk show. They brought up Facebook and how they were automatically collecting data based on pages you follow, comments and likes – but then they also walked you through how to disable that feature. I was shocked. I had never even heard of that, but I have to assume it was a “term and condition” that I “agreed to” when I checked my box at sign up. Honestly, I don’t read them, and that’s 100% on me. BUT, it’s also something that I know I need to get better at and read in the future because that is so scary. We have an Alexa that we’ve stopped using because of those same concerns. I know my husband has always wanted a Roomba (we have two huskies so we do a lot of vacuuming), but after reading this I think we might had to stick with our ol’ reliable Dyson!

    • Thank you for the compliment, and if you want to watch the Social Dilemma anyways for the information I’d just skip through the dramatizations when they’re not paired with interview voiceover.

      I wish you, your husband, and your dogs luck with the vacuuming situation!

  5. Hi, Jackie!

    Your post reminded me of one of my favorite moments from the “How Did This Get Made?” podcast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t45-k13vIUY

    Leanna

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