iRobot CEO Denies That The Firm Is Seeking To Sell User Data

July 31, 2017 - Written By Daniel Fuller

iRobot CEO Colin Angle recently spoke with Reuters about having the company’s iRobot line of smart vacuum cleaners share indoor mapping data with other smart devices in a user’s home, and has followed up on the subject in an email to a ZDNet columnist to make some clarifications on the matter, stating that iRobot will never sell user data to third parties. Angle asserted that iRobot currently handles sensitive user data, including indoor mapping data, only with explicit user permissions, and makes it clear where the data is going and how it will be used. He went on to explain that data will be handled in the same way in the future, but iRobot is looking at expanding what data Roomba can share and what devices and companies it can share it with. The goal is to use the data from a Roomba unit to make a user’s IoT and smart home experiences as personalized as possible, but only with explicit user consent.

In response to some additional questioning, Angle elaborated that all versions of the Roomba store all information locally, including mapping and camera data, unless a user specifically approves the use of that data to populate a map and cleaning data in Roomba’s companion mobile app. In that case, the data is sent into iRobot’s cloud for processing, then to a user’s device to be displayed in the app. Those are the only places that data from a Roomba unit goes at present, and only with explicit approval from the owner. The entire circuit is well-secured, according to Angle. It is also worth noting that the camera data would be largely unusable for most applications; the Roomba unit essentially only sees depth and bright spots, not identifying much more than where things are, what’s alive in front of it, and what’s electronically operated in front of it, if a light source like a screen is in its immediate vicinity.

Privacy and the dissemination of user data is a sensitive subject these days, but Angle’s argument for sharing data between devices in a smart home is not entirely without precedent. Many consumer device ecosystems thrive on cross-communication; Apple is one of the biggest examples of this design philosophy, with just about everything it sells collecting some sort of user data and communicating it back to Apple’s servers to enhance services. For the time being, however, there is no full-on smart home solution with device cross-communication capabilities. Samsung’s SmartThings aims to produce something along those lines, but Angle is speaking of universal communication to and from Roomba units, making them the center of a given smart home experience. Essentially, the Roomba would tell all other smart devices in a home what the layout is and where some objects are, facilitating a more targeted, holistic experience in unique ways, such as having lighting contour to the furniture in a room, Angle said.