Privacy Hits The Dust: Data-Collecting Vacuum Cleaners

Privacy Hits The Dust: Data-Collecting Vacuum Cleaners

Reprinted with permission from Creators.


Privacy advocates cried in protest after a report that the maker of the Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner, will sell maps of customers’ homes to third parties. Investors, on the other hand, shouted buy orders for the company’s stock.

Data has become the gold nugget buried in things and services connected to the internet. A Roomba, for example, could note the presence of toys on the floor — useful information for a company selling children’s togs, school services or, of course, toys. Amazon, Apple and Google certainly have their ears open.

For the record, Roomba’s parent company, iRobot, responded no, no, no, we won’t sell such data. Not everyone was convinced. The company’s statement said, “We have not formed any plans to sell data,” which is not the same as never.

Many “smart appliances” are now teasing out our travels, eating habits, politics, relationships, age, income and education level in ways we may not appreciate. Cars, for example, can record radio stations you listen to, questions you ask Google and the view from the vehicle’s cameras.

My vacuum cleaner is a dumb old Electrolux. The tales it could tell. Most of the time, however, it encounters nothing more interesting than dust bunnies multiplying under a heavy couch. But suppose it could rat on me to my aunt in Florida, who’s a housekeeper extraordinaire. Sounds impossible, but consider that my Piper home security device can automatically call a friend when an intruder sets off the alarm. In many ways, my life is already an open-house tour in cyberspace.

The question “Is anything sacred?” has an answer. It is “No.”

Companies are now implanting chips in workers’ hands. The chips let employees enter the premises with a wave of the hand. Some workers have objected to mandatory microchipping or other body ID on religious, as well as privacy, grounds. A coal miner in West Virginia sued over an employer’s hand scanning device. He said it was a sign of evil — of “end times” as prophesized in the Bible. The miner won $150,000 in damages.

As for internet-connected consumer products, vendors argue that owners can configure the devices to share only some or no data with others. However, there are ways they entice reluctant customers to go along. One is to offer something of value in return for access to the data.

Such trade-offs can be compelling. An insurer in Arizona now gives motorists a 3 percent discount if they use a smartphone app that sends back information on their driving. Consumers might like both the money and the incentive to drive carefully.

Related to this line of thinking is the “I have nothing to hide” stance. And related to that is “Why should I tax my brain protecting information I don’t care about being public?”

Which brings up another way to get consumers to cough up information — make rules covering privacy complex and hidden in fine print. Many, perhaps most, of us don’t read the privacy policy.

Facebook’s is a constant source of confusion — and this is a site that scoops up personal dope by the landfill. But though some complained when Facebook used their location to suggest “friends,” others regarded the recommendations as a service.

Sharing of certain information, such as medical history, can be highly desirable. Consider the patient who arrives unconscious at an emergency room. Some people have chips in their arms with the sole purpose of giving medical providers a complete picture.

Where all this is going, one can’t say. The smart money is betting on “smart” gadgets. As for privacy, if even a lowly vacuum cleaner can get into our affairs, this could well be end times.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at


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