Technology

Getting inside my Roomba’s head


With help from Heidi Vogt

I should start with a confession. I own a second-hand Roomba. Her name is Evie. She’s part of my family. She doesn’t see so well in the dark, but she can run circles around my armchair. Every now and again, she tries to vacuum my toes.

So when Amazon announced on Aug. 5 that it was going to purchase Roomba-manufacturer iRobot for $1.7 billion, I was torn. iRobot has been a fixture in autonomous robotics since the ’90s. Sure, it would be convenient to send commands to my Roomba through Alexa, but it also raises questions about data privacy in my own home — and particularly my floor plan.

Former DOJ prosecutor and antitrust expert Maurice Stucke told me I should be worried about how that could give Amazon yet another edge in targeted advertising.

“Let’s say you were looking for a coffee table on Amazon Prime, and you decided to purchase it elsewhere. You wouldn’t think Amazon would know of it. But now if you have their vacuum cleaner, it could now determine that, indeed, you did buy a coffee table elsewhere,” said Stucke, now a law professor at the University of Tennessee.

Stucke compared Amazon’s data collection practices to a pointillist Georges Seurat painting: data from one Amazon smart home product may not tell you much, but “when you step away and you look at all the dots, you get a much clearer picture.”

After all, Amazon already has access to data on your grocery shopping at Whole Foods and books you’re reading on your Kindle. And it owns Ring doorbell, which came under fire for sharing data from its porch-front monitors with thousands of police departments, and a router company called Eero that knows what smart-home devices you’re using to connect.

Amazon spokesperson Laura Wate declined to speak directly about potential data use from iRobot products, but said that protecting consumer data has always been “incredibly important” to the company.

Even so, Amazon has come under fire in Congress for allegedly lying about collecting data of its third-party sellers earlier this year.

IRobot’s privacy policy allows its users to opt in to share limited data with a preferred voice assistant like Alexa, but does not say if that includes mapping data. Spokesperson Charlie Vaida said the company does not currently share any mapping data with third parties.

The assurances are not comforting for Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the anti-monopoly group Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Amazon “seems to be positioning themselves for Alexa to be the primary platform for all of the appliances and devices that will be connected in people’s homes,” Mitchell told me.

So as Amazon consolidates its footing in the smart-home space, it looks like my humble Roomba suddenly has a big part to play. It’s going to be difficult to remember that Evie could soon be sending data about my furniture purchases to Amazon, given that she’s currently stuck under my dishwasher.

Russia is getting closer to a walled-off “splinternet” with a purchase it announced this week of a number of online media offerings from Yandex — the Moscow-based tech giant that has been called Russia’s Google.

The Kremlin-controlled company VK will now own Yandex’s news aggregator, its popular yandex.ru homepage and Zen infotainment service. These subsidiaries had been some of the few remaining ways for Russians to receive independent media and foreign coverage of the Ukraine war. Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are banned in the country, and multiple independent news outlets have already been blocked.

Of course, this has a lot to do with controlling what Russians see and read about Ukraine. But ramifications could continue well into the years ahead. China has already walled off much of its internet and limited citizens to government-monitored social media apps.

Jake Harrington, an intelligence fellow at CSIS, noted that while experts had hoped that creating these closed internets would be “too technologically challenging, too expensive and at odds with what citizens were willing to accept in modern society,” authoritarian regimes have proven themselves up for the digital challenge.

Still, it’s not easy to maintain a firewall around a whole country, given that citizens have bypassed the Great Firewall of China using VPNs, web proxies and even a Tor browser.

Yandex emailed me a statement saying its decision to “exit the news and blogging space” was meant to bolster its other technology-related businesses and products — everything from search and advertising to ride-hailing to e-commerce services.

At the same time, Harrington said, exiting the media business in Russia is likely to give Yandex a welcome reprieve from government scrutiny.

The number of patents for health care tech tied to the metaverse has ballooned, recently hitting about 400, as POLITICO’s Ruth Reader reports in today’s Future Pulse newsletter.

That includes products to train doctors on virtual cadavers and headsets that show MRI and CT scans in 3D. At Johns Hopkins, doctors used augmented reality headsets last year to perform two complex back surgeries.

But as Ruth notes, the data privacy implications are particularly troubling with health in the metaverse, because HIPAA — the federal law that protects patient data —doesn’t extend far beyond the doctor’s office. And that gets even more complicated when we’re talking about wellness devices — like home sensors that track and upload your physical activity — which may not be regulated as medical products. — Heidi Vogt

As we prepare for a future where I can yell (fruitfully) at the devices in my apartment, I’m going to leave you with a first person narrative by the very first “Thing” ever linked to the Internet of Things — a Coca-Cola vending machine in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University.

In 1982, tired grad students Mike Kazar, David Nichols, John Zsarnay, and Ivor Durham were sick of traveling to the third floor for a caffeine fix, only to find the departmental Coke machine empty. Obviously, they installed micro-switches in the machine to tell them how many bottles were left, and wrote a server program to detect how cold each bottle was, and hooked it all up to the newly expanded ARPANET (the precursor to the internet). Just like that, in theory, you could check on this random Coke machine’s status from anywhere on the Internet.

By 2008, PCmag.com had deemed the Internet’s first Coke Machine one of the greatest “hacks” of all time. Today, we’d call that “hack” a smart home device.

The global market for smart home services is now expected to reach nearly $600 billion by the end of the decade. That’s quite a long way from one Coke machine.

  • Microsoft’s cloud service is embracing the IoT, while Google pulls the parachute cord on it.
  • The rain in Spain is coming from a giant sprinkler system meant to put out wildfires.
  • Just by monitoring your breathing, an AI model out of MIT can detect Parkinson’s disease.
  • The promise of new aluminum battery tech is exciting indeed — but there’s a catch
  • Yes, there is a doctor on board. The International Space Station will host a surgical robot in 2024.

Stay in touch with the whole team: Ben Schreckinger ([email protected]); Derek Robertson ([email protected]); Mohar Chatterjee ([email protected]); Konstantin Kakaes ([email protected]); and Heidi Vogt ([email protected]). Follow us on Twitter @DigitalFuture.

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