What a difference a word makes. On July 24, Reuters published a story about an interview with Colin Angle, the CEO of iRobot Corp. They are the makers of Roomba, the popular robotic vacuum. In the interview, Angle excitedly talked about all the benefits that could come from using the data Roomba collects (think the dimensions of a room as well as distances between sofas, tables, lamps and other home furnishings) to share with other Smart Technology such as home lighting, thermostats and security cameras. The rest of the article went on to talk about market competition, potential future developments, stock prices, and, oh yeah, a brief nod to security concerns.
When asked about those concerns, Angle said iRobot would not be sharing data without its customers’ permission, but he expressed confidence most would give their consent in order to access the smart home functions.
The problem though is that the writer did not use the word “share”. Instead, he used the word “sell”—as in iRobot would be selling our data to the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google. (You won’t find that in the article now as Reuters printed a retraction a few days later—after privacy advocates went crazy!)
When Angle was questioned by others about this policy, he made it as clear as could be:
“First things first, iRobot will never sell your data. Our mission is to help you keep a cleaner home and, in time, to help the smart home and the devices in it work better. There’s no doubt that a robot can help your home be smarter. It’s the data it collects to do its job, and the trusted relationship between you, your robot and iRobot, that is critical for that to happen. Information that is shared needs to be controlled by the customer and not as a data asset of a corporation to exploit. That is how data is handled by iRobot today. Customers have control over sharing it. I want to make very clear that this is how data will be handled in the future.”
While Reuters might have misinterpreted Angle’s comments when it came to the selling of the data – the supply of the data available to potentially provide to companies is not in question. The debate turns from outrage at a company invading our privacy to the very real need to take a good look at our own practices and what we are (knowingly or not) allowing companies to do with our data. We have to be willing to take control of our data:
– limit what we give away
– change our defaults so as to not “permit” companies to share what is collected
– speak up against and, if needed, boycott the products that don’t meet our privacy demands.
Likewise, this is a call to businesses to take responsibility for using data to their advantage but only if they have transparently let their customers know how it is being used and giving them the control (not just through changing default settings!)