Is your vacuum cleaner spying on you? Because that would suck

Gonzalo Torres 18 Aug 2017

Your Roomba and some of your other home appliances collect a heap of personal data. Secure the privacy of your home with these expert tips.

Imagine this: you arrive home in the middle of the day, quite unexpected, and find your cleaning lady — whom you hired to take care of things while you’re at work — taking pictures of your bedroom. “What are you doing?” you may very reasonably ask.

“Oh, this? I’ve decided to send the details of your home to some big stores downtown” she says, as she snaps a picture of your bed with her phone and emails it off.

What would you do? Fire her on the spot? Demand an explanation? Or would you just shrug your shoulders and hand her the WiFi password?

Cleaning up this Roomba mess

How you answered that question could reflect your level of concern over the news that iRobot — makers of the home cleaning robot superhit Roomba — is working on a deal with big retailers to share the “rich map of the home” of their users with the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

The announcement was followed by the sort of whirlwind public mess marketing execs have nightmares about: media frenzy; public outrage; corrections (iRobot will not sell your floor plan to retailers, but instead share it with them for free — phew, that’s a relief); and further clarifications (iRobot’s CEO went public to state they will always ask for a user's consent before sharing details of their home with anyone — another huge relief, since you never click on things you haven’t carefully read and ran by a lawyer. Never).

But what does your Roomba actually know about you?

If you’ve been giving your home cleaning robot the suspicious side-eye, or if you were thinking of buying one and have put your plans on hold, you’ll want to know exactly what kind of potential home espionage you’re dealing with. 

  • Does it take pictures of your home? Sort of. It depends on the model. The Roomba 900 series takes images of your home for navigation — to know where it is and where to go. iRobot’s CEO wants you to know that these aren’t pictures as such, but rather a "pattern of light and dark points". Which, not to get nitpicky, sounds a wee bit like a euphemism for ‘picture’.

  • Does it store your details, or does it beam them out? A little of column A, a little of column B. The company says that the aforementioned 900 series stores the mapping and navigation data and dark-light-point-pattern definitely-not-pictures in the robot itself, while all WiFi-enabled devices send usage data (but not images) to the cloud. With the exception of the most basic model, all the robots in the current Roomba sales range are WiFi-enabled.

  • What does it even want all that data for? The floor plan of your home, where your furniture is placed, how often do you run a cleaning cycle, and for how long … Roombas hoover up personal data like they do dust. Some of that data is purely operational: for example, the robot needs to know how big your floor is in order to clean the whole surface. Some of it is FYI, and gets sent to your smartphone. That’s the gist of it… for now.

Your bot is doing more than vacuuming your home — it’s scanning it.

Well. What could possibly go wrong?

I know i'm not doing myself any favors as a tech writer here, but personally, I am still amazed that there even is a robot that can clean up my home (and doesn’t plummet down the stairs to boot).

And I know I’m not alone. So many of us are so happy at the thought of not having to ever vacuum again, that we haven’t really given any thought to the cost we may pay in return, beyond that initial purchase fee. Until now.

Now, all we can think of are things like:

  • Roomba knows which room your children are in. As Gizmodo puts it, it’s the one with all the toys it keeps bumping into. It knows which of your rooms require the most care. Is it the kitchen? Looks like you cook a lot. What does your bathroom floor say about you? Roomba knows. Roomba knows a lot of things.
  • Roomba can tell others about your home. The reason Amazon, Apple and other big retailers are amenable to linking up with your house robot is because it can potentially tell them all sorts of things about what you have, what you don’t have, and what they think you should have. A sparsely furnished living room? Maybe you need to see more sofa ads online. Once again, your bot is doing more than vacuuming your home — it’s scanning it.

  • Hackers. Because, of course. Your robot friend is sending data to the cloud through your home WiFi, and if your home WiFi is not properly secured, the potential exists for someone with enough tech-savvy to get him- or herself a neat map of the contents of your home.

Keep calm and control your bot

OK, so you’ve been thinking of the place where privacy, security and convenience meet and clash, and you’ve found out that place is your vacuum cleaner. Now what?

There are several things you can do to keep yourself and your personal data protected. Try these on:

  • Buy the cheap one. It can’t connect to Wi-Fi. It just, you know — vacuums your floor.

  • Buy the fancy one and disable the cloud sharing function in the iRoom Home app. This sort of turns the fancy one into a less fancy one that doesn’t do all it could — but again, it will vacuum your floor.

  • Set up MAC address filtering on your router. This is a bit tech-intensive, but it boils down to this: every device you connect to the net has a unique Media Access Control (MAC) address. You can give your router a list of MAC addresses, and tell it not to let anyone in unless they’re on the list. This works to stop any Wi-Fi-capable appliance in your household from connecting to the net. Check your router instructions; it’s worth looking into.

  • Scan for vulnerabilities in your home network. You can make life impossibly hard for hackers if you close their access points. Our WiFi Inspector is a built-in feature of all 2017 Avast products, and it notifies you of weak router passwords, router firmware vulnerabilities, and more.

  • Choose life. Choose privacy. Choose a broom. It’s fully analog, doesn’t need recharging, and will take your secrets to its grave.
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