Roomba Research Paper

There are those of us who clean once a week, and there are those of us who clean when the in-laws come to visit. The appeal of the robotic vacuum reaches both camps: Either way, the house is a bit more spotless with minimal human input.

Today's robotic vacuums are a far cry from the first models that you had to track down, stranded somewhere in your house, by their melancholy, "I'm out of power" beeping. The latest products clean your house, remember the layout to increase efficiency, dump their own dirt in a receptacle and find their way back to the charging station so they can rejuice.

In this article, we'll learn about robotic vacuuming, do an in-depth examination of the iRobot Roomba Red and check out some of the other vacuuming robots on the market.

Robotic Vacuum Basics

There are a lot of models of robotic vacuums available today, and they range in price from $50 all the way up to $1,800. These vacuuming robots are typically low-slung and compact, meaning they can get under furniture that a regular upright vacuum cleaner can't.

Most manufacturers will tell you that a robotic vacuum is meant to supplement a standard, human-pushed vacuum cleaner, not replace it. They're meant to perform daily or weekly touch-ups to keep your home cleaner in between regular vacuuming cycles. Still, if you're someone who never vacuums in the first place, a little robotic helper can certainly get your floor cleaner than it is right now, and you hardly have to lift a finger.

­ By far the most popular robotic vacuum in the United States is iRobot's Roomba, which comes in various models ranging from the base-model Roomba Red to the super high-tech Roomba Scheduler. HowStuffWorks has a Roomba Red ($150 MSRP) that we're going to try out and dissect for this article. Let's start by checking out what's under the hood.

Jamie Lee Williams, a staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said information about the size of a home and the amount of furniture in it could allow advertisers to deduce the owner’s income level. Eventually, it might even be possible to identify the brands the owner uses.

“Especially combined with other data, this is going to be able to reveal a ton of information about what people’s lifestyles are like, what people’s daily patterns are like,” Ms. Williams said.

Albert Gidari, director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, said that if iRobot did share the data, it would raise a variety of legal questions.

What happens if a Roomba user consents to the data collection and later sells his or her home — especially furnished — and now the buyers of the data have a map of a home that belongs to someone who didn’t consent, Mr. Gidari asked. How long is the data kept? If the house burns down, can the insurance company obtain the data and use it to identify possible causes? Can the police use it after a robbery?

Some who reacted online on Monday and Tuesday were alarmed.

“Your friendly little Roomba could soon become a creepy little spy that sells maps of your house to advertisers,” tweeted OpenMedia, a Canadian nonprofit.

“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.”

“Informed consent,” of course, can be a vaguely defined term; Ms. Williams and Mr. Gidari noted that it might simply involve a privacy policy that few consumers read. But this criticism is “really applicable across the board to everybody’s privacy policy,” Mr. Gidari said. “It’s really tough to criticize one without criticizing all.”

Mr. Gidari added that in today’s technological climate, iRobot’s plans were unsurprising. “It kind of goes with the mantra that everything that can be connected will be connected,” he said, and a corollary “is that all the data that can be collected will be collected.”

But in the long term, what iRobot does with individual users’ data may not be the most important question. The third-party collection and dissemination of information about the inside of homes could have implications for the privacy laws that constrain the government and law enforcement.

The Supreme Court has held that Americans have “a reasonable expectation of privacy in your home,” Mr. Gidari said. “Once your home is turned inside out, does that reasonable expectation of privacy dissipate?”

Continue reading the main story
Correction: July 31, 2017

An earlier version of this article misstated iRobot’s plans, based on a Reuters report that was later corrected. The company said it might share mapping data with customers’ consent, not sell it.

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