Now your Roomba is spying on you as well

by Sarah Firisen

About eight years ago, I was in downtown Manhattan and went into a Warby Parker store, an eyewear retailer. I didn’t post anything on social media about it, but I did have location services enabled on Facebook. Later that day, Facebook started showing me ads for eyewear (something it had never done before.) How and why it did that wasn’t a giant leap of understanding, and I immediately turned location services off for Facebook. But of course, this was sticking one thumb in the crumbling dam that is my data privacy. I own an Alexa, and I have an iPhone, an Apple watch, and an iPad. And that’s just for starters. I use Google all day long, subscribe to multiple online publications, use Amazon regularly, have used Instacart in the past, and the list goes on.

My husband, who doesn’t use any social media, tells himself the lie that he’s protecting his privacy. But he uses a Chinese Huawei phone, and I like to tease him that he prefers the Chinese government to know where he is and what he’s doing than the US one. He’s not off the grid; he has online subscriptions and credit cards and uses Google and Amazon. Maybe his data is marginally more private than mine, but if it is, it’s minimal.

This New York Times article says, “Reconciling the idea of privacy with our digital world demands embracing a profound cognitive dissonance. To exist in 2022 is to be surveilled, tracked, tagged and monitored — most often for profit. Short of going off the grid, there’s no way around it.” The article continues, “Step back, and what we’re looking at is a world where privacy simply doesn’t exist anymore. Instead of talking about old notions of privacy and how to defend or get back to that ideal state, we should start talking about what comes next.”

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my love for my Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner (named Joanne). Recently, Amazon bought iRobot, the company that makes the Roomba. As this article astutely points out, what Amazon wants from iRobot is data, “This type of data is digital gold to a company whose primary purpose is to sell you more stuff. While I’m interested to see how Amazon can leverage iRobot’s tech to improve its smart home ambitions, many are right to be concerned with the privacy implications. People want home automation to work better, but they don’t want to give up the intimate details of their lives for more convenience.” But there’s the rub, is it true that we don’t want to give up the intimate details of our lives for more convenience? Indeed, in an ideal world, we’d get all the convenience and total privacy, but even my husband acknowledges that it’s not worth it to be that off the grid.

Indeed, in many cases, many people seem to be willfully disregarding what data they happily share; I use Venmo, but I keep most of my transactions private. But scrolling through the list of what the various people in my contacts list (which Venmo seems to have easy access to) are paying each other for is eye-opening. You can put anything you want in your Venmo description. Yet people choose to be quite explicit about their transactions. Just a cursory glance now shows me how many people are happy to publically claim that they’re being paid for babysitting services which I’m sure are not being reported to the IRS as they’re supposed to be.  It’s just lucky that the IRS isn’t as good at mining our data as Facebook is.

I’ve written about how, having accepted that I have no data privacy, I’d like the use of my data to at least make my life easier. And indeed, I have conflicted feelings about whether I prefer companies that aren’t coordinated enough to use my data efficiently versus the ones that are Orwellian in their ability to know me. It’s often quite convenient (if somewhat disconcerting) to have Amazon, Google, and Facebook show me ads tailored to my interests. And it’s even the case that some beneficial things are being done with our data, “ Tesla and other automakers increasingly capture such information to operate and improve their driving technologies….experts say this data could fundamentally change the way regulators, police departments, insurance companies and other organizations investigate anything that happens on the road, making such investigations more accurate and less costly.

On the one hand, we have convenience, service improvements, the potential to increase safety, and lower costs. But on the other hand, in the wake of the Dobbs decision and the passing of draconian abortion laws in some states,  some very serious alarm bells have rung recently about how the government might use our location data. There are real concerns that “phone location data, internet searches and purchase history are all fair game for the police — especially in states that do not protect abortion rights and where women can be hunted down for their health care choices.”

At least in the US, we don’t yet have robust federal data privacy regulations but a hodgepodge of state-level laws. The European Union made a good start when it implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to cover data protection and privacy in the European Union and the European Economic Area. This Forbes piece describes GDPR, “The regulation is large and complex, and many companies have struggled to comply with all of the provisions. Nevertheless, the intent of the law is in the best interest of individuals whose personal information is too often abused by these very same corporate entities.” As this article points out, the Federal government has a roadmap for putting GDPR-like data privacy rules into place; we already have such guidance for using our health data in HIPAA and our education data through FERPA.

What is beyond doubt is that data privacy issues are increasing exponentially as more and more of our lives go online. Big tech companies have become increasingly aggressive in their moves to know as much as possible about where we go, what we do, watch, buy, eat, spend, how we love, and now the exact layout of our homes. Most of us want some of the convenience this brings. But it would also be nice, as is now the case in the EU, to have some control over our data. Do we really want our Roombas sharing how messy we are with their tech overlords?