Public Advocacy

By Heather Feinstein

Recently iRobot, the company which produces Roomba, a popular robotic vacuum, made news when CEO Colin Angle seemed to imply he was open to selling the maps Roomba produces of your home to third parties ( This suggestion caused quite a stir amongst consumers and privacy advocates and ultimately lead to a strong recharacterization of the process as a consumer benefit (better integration with IOT!) rather than a profit seeking venture (we are NOT selling maps of your home to Amazon…yet) ( But why did this issue hit consumers so close to home (no pun intended)? And how can companies avoid this sort of “misunderstanding” in the future?

A possible answer lies in Helen Nissenbaum’s paper “A Contextual Approach to Privacy” ( Nissenbaum argues that tech privacy constraints should mirror the privacy constrains of their non-tech counterparts. For instance, when you shop at your local pharmacy you do not expect Walgreens to erect a billboard of your OTC medication purchases for all your neighbors to see, likewise you would not expect nor look kindly at posting “Jessica purchased Immodium AD today!” on your Facebook wall. In this case, since your trusty Dyson never whipped out a drafting table, diagrammed your home, and began shopping it around to local businesses, you are within reason to expect Roomba to behave in kind. One possible response is that consumers should be aware that Roomba needs to map your place in order to perform its advertised function, however consumers are so new to automation that many may not have thought or looked far enough into the Roomba’s functioning to realize this. In that case, they would be in no position to even wonder what iRobot might be doing with such maps.

While iRobot seems to be doing a serviceable job at damage control, this could all have been avoided had they jumped ahead of the game and considered context. iRobot could have been billed not as simply an electronic vacuum, but as an integrated home tool that you could use to create a map to send to an interior designer, home alarm system manufacturer or real estate agent as desired. This suddenly creates a new context for Roomba to exist in — now Roomba is a vacuum and personal architect. Modern society has been fraught with privacy tradeoffs long before technology advanced. The difference now is that the tradeoffs are less obvious too consumers, many feel more threatened by the shock of the privacy invasion than the actual invasion itself.

iRobot and other companies would do well to consider Nissenbaum’s contextual approach to privacy when marketing their products. While it doesn’t apply to all new technology – some of which is so revelatory there is truly no non-tech analogy – it does go a long way toward helping companies predict what sorts of privacy invasions consumers will be most offended by. iRobot misstopped by taking a process that consumers are very comfortable and familiar with and failing to get consumers comfortable with a new aspect of that process that technology would introduce. Companies should always be mindful of product expectations driven by context and make sure consumers are aware of where those expectations may be undermined. Only then will customers see new technological features as opportunities rather than threats.