What Does Your Robot Vacuum Know About You?
In recent years, one of the best-selling products during sales days known as Black Friday or Cyber Monday has been the robot vacuum cleaner. Its advanced features, which allow its start-up and operation when the user is away from home, have clearly seduced buyers.
But this sales success has also been accompanied by some doubts: are these robots acquiring sensitive data that can be sold in the global personal data market?
What kind of data do Roomba and company collect?
The robot vacuum cleaner has been the first successful case of robotics in the domestic sphere. In 2002, the first series of Roomba robots was manufactured, consisting of 15,000 units, which sold out in a few weeks. 18 years later, millions of units have been sold and robot vacuum cleaners represent a significant market share in the cleaning sector.
These electronic agents have evolved in different directions, from the incorporation of new features such as the ability to scrub floors to the improvement of their “intelligent behavior”. Today they have sophisticated navigation systems that allow them to return to their charging base if necessary and also optimize the cleaning of an entire plant.
But beyond the price war and the increase in their benefits, domestic robots have recently been the protagonists of some controversy related to the data collected by their sensors.
Most of these devices are capable of using sensors to build a map of the space they must clean and, in the case of the most sophisticated, use cameras that allow them to identify various obstacles. These maps can be consulted by users from their mobiles using the corresponding application.
It is therefore no secret that the incorporation of semi-autonomous robots into our domestic environment entails a very advanced level of data capture: maps of our home, images, temperature and humidity records, time records, etc.
The announcement in 2017 by the Roomba manufacturer of the possible sharing of some of this data generated a first controversy, not yet closed, about the right to privacy in the domestic sphere. Should we agree to the sharing of data about our home? What limits should be imposed? What mechanisms do we have to exercise our rights?
Privacy will be, at least during the first half of the 21st century, one of the sources of conflict in a world where the collection of personal data has been extraordinarily simplified and in which the crossing of various data sources allows the creation of very precise profiles of the citizens.
The advantages that digitization and robotization of our environment will bring must be critically analyzed so as not to fall into models that facilitate social manipulation by large data aggregators.
How is privacy understood in this case?
Privacy can be defined as the ability to modulate and control third party access to our personal information. It is not a simple concept. To exercise this capacity, tools and protocols are needed.
In the case at hand, the collection of data from our home should be carried out with a series of minimum requirements by the manufacturers:
The first, the default commitment not to share or sell this data to third parties without the express consent of the user, preserving their privacy, using a strategy that has been called privacy by design.
In the case of requesting consent, do so transparently. Transparency refers to very clearly defining the intentions of the demand and the intended use of the data: it is not the same to give this data so that the manufacturer improves the product within the framework of an internal process than to sell it to a third party that You can use them for unknown purposes.
Finally, it is necessary to make available to the client effective mechanisms to exercise their rights. The company must be responsible for the use and consequences of the technology it uses.
Should we be worried?
Although the personal data used by a robotic vacuum cleaner may seem innocuous, its combination with other data sources, also innocuous when considered independently, has a high value for some companies due to its predictive and manipulative capacity, as has been shown by studies latest scandals around Cambridge Analytica.
There is no proof of any data leak related to robot vacuum cleaners to date. We can even say that some companies have made progress in implementing privacy requirements, but the issue is not closed and it is necessary to keep the focus on it.
On the one hand, the lack of regulation that goes beyond European data protection regulations makes it difficult to control the behavior of new companies in this area with strong pressure to expand their market share.
On the other hand, independent studies seem to indicate that data from some robotic vacuum cleaners is transmitted to countries with excessively lax legislation regarding privacy.
If we want to keep our concern at moderate levels, a double action is needed: to support public monitoring initiatives of any element capable of capturing personal information and also to promote new legislative initiatives that empower citizens in the face of this new reality.