On Friday, Amazon acquired iRobot, the company responsible for the Roomba, for a cool $1.7 billion.
At first glance, that’s a little odd. What does Amazon want with a company responsible for a robotic vacuum cleaner? Does Jeff Bezos get off on scaring people’s dogs? Are they planning a future where my vacuum can bring my packages inside? Did some genius with an MBA misread iRobot’s second quarter earnings statement, in which it was revealed the company’s revenue for that quarter was down 30%?
Nah, fam, as usual this decision comes down to one thing: the data.
See, that silly little robot licking crumbs up off your floor is mapping the interior of your home and sending that data back to iRobot’s servers. Supposedly this is part of a means of enhancing the smart home experience–which would explain why Amazon might want to add the suckers to its smart home fleet that already includes a variety of Alexa-microphone-enabled devices and Ring security cameras.
“So what?” you might ask. “I’m a lazy shit, and if that thing cleans my floor for me I have more time to watch cat videos. Plus, letting the world’s largest retailer have all that data might get me better recommendations next time I need a new couch to lounge around on. What’s the harm?”
For one thing, any data you give to another party is now permanently out of your control. You are now trusting someone else both to store it securely and to make wise choices about who else they give or sell it to. Maybe you don’t currently care who knows the layout of your home, but someday…you might. Think about situations where someone’s dealing with a stalker, or about what law enforcement agencies might do with that information.
Which brings me to my second point: big companies like this can’t be trusted. They exist entirely to make money and secure their own positions in the economic hierarchy. If there’s value to them in selling the information they collect on you, they absolutely will–and then the problem I described in the previous paragraph is exacerbated, because now you’re trusting someone else to do the right thing with your data–and they’re just going to use it to make money too, possibly by selling it to yet another someone else, and so on and so forth. It’s digital turtles all the way down.
Some of the companies in the chain, of course, may use that data to make decisions that have an adverse affect on your life. I’m sure all the leeches selling home and life insurance would love to know whether the edge of your coffee table is juuuuuust close enough to the entertainment center to be classified as a tripping hazard so they can adjust your rates “appropriately.”
And my final point: it sets the very strange precedent that it’s ok for a little automaton to wander your house and send back whatever data it wants to a massive conglomerate that cares about you only as a thing from which it can extract more money. Think about how freakin’ unprecedented something like that is. A giant coaster is tracing the edge of your space and wiring data back to a giant corporate mothership, but that’s just fine because it’s picking up all the hair.
Not only is that weird, but it’s an opening for the device’s manufacturers to do so much more as technology improves. This thing is indiscriminately eating everything it passes over. All the random shit on your floor is now in its innards–right where more advanced technology could analyze it all and report the results back to central processing. Crumbs could tell them what you’ve been eating and how much. Hair and skin flakes could provide DNA information useful in identifying who’s been in your house and–when matched with Amazon’s existing healthcare data–what’s happening medically. They could learn if you’ve got pets, or mold, or some sort of embarrassing kink you’re bad at cleaning up.
And I have zero faith that the people in charge will be able to resist the urge to control the thing remotely–either to collect a certain sample or gently nudge your rickety old bookshelf so it topples over and you have to buy a whole pile of new stuff, while conveniently cutting or doctoring the audio and video feeds your other smart devices would’ve picked up at the time.
Does this all sound crazy? Sure, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last few years, crazy doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The idea that entities with money and power will do anything they can to get more of it is something I’m kind of obsessed with, and it’s a big theme in my Deviant Magic novels. Literal demons may not be in charge of the world’s largest corporation here in the real world, but there are still plenty of people out there who could exploit this access to your home to do very bad things. Remember: we live in a world where oil companies lobby against the reality of climate change their own scientists have proven, tech companies have already gotten caught using harvested data to try to influence public opinion and elections, and law enforcement is asking DNA testing firms for information.
So maybe vacuum your own damn floor for now. You can do it. I believe in you.