This was not the conversation Colin Angle expected to have this week. In the past few days, iRobot posted excellent Q2 earnings, thanks to brisk Prime Day Roomba sales, and acquired its largest European distributor in a $141 million deal. Yet the CEO and the company he founded were suddenly at the center of home privacy concerns over a report that he was looking to sell Roomba home mapping information to the highest bidder.
Angle and iRobot has been in damage control for a few days now. When we reached out earlier in the week, the executive answered noncommittally that “iRobot has not formed any plans to sell the data.” But a new statement issued to ZDNET earlier today gets more to the heart of the matter, stating that “iRobot will never [emphasis his] sell your data.”
It’s the kind of definitive statement the company should have issued immediately, rather than letting the story live for a few more days. For his part, Angle is adamant that he never said the company was planning to sell information to a third party. The original report, meanwhile, has been adjusted to clarify that maps could be shared “for free with customer consent”.
It’s understandable that the news raised red flags. Every new device and app we introduce into our live represents another potential erosion of privacy — and those concerns are even more pronounced when it comes to bringing data collecting, connected products into our homes. Of course, iRobot has been upfront with its plans to collect mapping info with Roomba — we’ve spoken to the company about the subject several times.
The company is also open about the fact that it’s been talking to other smart home vendors about its plans to use the Roomba’s mapping in order to create a clearer layout of users’ homes. “We’ve had initial conversations around rooms and spatial context, but it’s relatively early,” says Angle. “I don’t want to overstate the depth of the conversations that we’ve been having, but we’re certainly on a collision course with others in the home because there’s an increasingly recognized need for spatial context.”
In spite of the initial pushback, iRobot is planning to continue to push into the smart home space. Though maintaining trust with consumers as it does so will require continued transparency. “Our relationship with the customer and our vision for the smart home is based on developing a trusting relationship about what the data is going to be used for,” says Angle.
That means, in part, ensuring that all mapping is completely opt-in and that it will be equally simple to opt out if the user gets cold feet. It will also require that the company make it perfectly clear what users are opting into, rather than stashing that information in the small print of a Terms and Conditions agreement — all of which the company tells us it plans to do, moving forward.