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Amazon’s Roomba purchase raises new privacy concerns

Amazon’s acquisition of iRobot has brought the debate surrounding smart device privacy into the spotlight once again. 

Last week, the online shopping giant announced it would buy the manufacturer of the Roomba vacuum cleaner for $1.7 billion. News outlets from Wired to Bloomberg have speculated that the acquisition is not just so the company can get in on the sales of the autonomous cleaning appliance, but because it will gain access to iRobot’s mapping technology. Roombas function by using sensors to map the homes they’re vacuuming. iRobot CEO Colin Angle said in an interview with Reuters in 2017 that they were considering sharing this data with companies developing smart homes at some point.

While mapping makes sense regarding the Roomba’s efficiency, privacy advocates expressed concerns about having maps of consumers’ home layouts stored in the cloud if there’s a possibility of that information being shared with third parties. When reporters at The Conversation asked Amazon about how map data could potentially be stored and used, the company said the deal has not yet been closed, so it couldn’t comment. However, it did emphasize that the company doesn’t use data for purposes customers haven’t consented to and that it never sells data to third parties.

Speaking to Wired, Evan Greer, director of the nonprofit digital rights organization Fight for the Future, described Amazon as not just an online retailer but a surveillance company. According to Greer, this recent acquisition is a “natural extension of the surveillance reach that Amazon already has.” Amazon’s smart home product line includes AI assistant Alexa, a home robot called Astro, and video doorbell Ring, which was in the news several weeks ago when the company revealed it had accessed and shared videos with law enforcement without obtaining permission. 

Amazon isn’t the only company that’s interested in mapping technology. Apple, known for its own virtual assistant Siri (which also has come under fire in the past), is working on an app called RoomPlan, intended for the creation of simplified parametric 3D scans of a room. Many other companies have also had concerns raised about their device’s surveillance capabilities, from lightbulbs that can monitor your heart rate to the security vulnerabilities of Smart TVs.

For now, the privacy issues with Roombas remain to be seen, but it does highlight the ever-growing privacy concerns that come with smart devices in our homes. 

In other news

  • Actual proof of the Loch Ness monster? Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have found fossils that could be proof of a creature in the Scottish lake, according to BGR. Fossils of small plesiosaurs that were found far from Loch Ness — in a river system in Morocco — suggest that the marine reptiles may have lived in freshwater environments as well as the oceans. Many have conjectured that, if real, “Nessie” would most closely resemble a plesiosaur, and until now scientists accepted that meant no such creature could reside within the fresh water of Loch Ness. With this discovery, all of that has changed. Still, although the nerdy Nessie enthusiasts may have won a victory over the rational scientists, the rest of us will still need a bit more evidence.      
  • UK Parliament closes TikTok account due to warning. The BBC reports that the British parliament has closed its TikTok account until further assurances are given that data is not passed back to the China government. A group of politicians and peers sanctioned by the Chinese government for criticizing human rights abuses in China had raised security concerns about TikTok in a letter to both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, has denied claims that it is owned by the Chinese government. Tensions between the two countries increased in 2020 over the decision to remove Huawei’s 5G technology from UK mobile networks.          
  • Flying cars are a go! Back to the Future is finally here, as the Samson Switchblade flying car has been given approval by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), according to New Atlas. Fourteen years in the making, this is a street-legal car that has two seats, three wheels, and transforms into a plane at the touch of a button in less than 3 minutes. Once converted, it’s capable of flying at 200 mph (322 km/h). As it has 3 wheels, in some places, it can be registered as a motorcycle, and it can drive up to 125 mph (201 km/h). For now, the Switchblade is only registered as an “experimental aircraft,” and it will still need additional testing. And at an estimated price of $150,000, it could be some time before we can all upgrade to flying licenses.    
  • Electronic tattoo ink to monitor health signs. Researchers from the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejon, South Korea, have developed a tattoo ink that has the potential to alert users to potential health issues, according to Medical Device Network. Tattoos will be able to monitor heart rates through electronic circuits on the skin, as the ink is made from liquid metal and carbon nanotubes operating as a bioelectrode. They can connect to biosensors like an electrocardiogram (ECG) for monitoring heart rate or other vital signs. The researchers hope to use an external wireless chip in conjunction with the ink so a two-way information exchange can be possible in the future.   
  • Machine learning may help save endangered species. The Verge reports on a study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology that the prospects for “data deficient” species could be worse than we had realized. These are the animals and plants for which insufficient information is known, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Researchers at the university developed an algorithm for predicting the extinction risk of data-deficient species in relation to a range of environmental factors. In doing this, the scientists were able to identify the species most at risk, which could be helpful in providing warnings where intervention is required.     
  • UK Amazon workers protest over pay increase. Employees at Tillbury Distribution Centre, Amazon’s largest warehouse in the UK, went on strike in protest of an insufficient pay increase, according to Wired. Rumors had led the workers to hope for an hourly raise of £1 ($1.20), but the raise announced was just 35 pence (42 cents). In the face of the rising cost of living, between 700 and 1000 Amazon workers protested last week at Tillbury, while other strikes took place in Bristol and Coventry. Amazon is opposed to unionizing, but employees voted to form the first union in New York earlier this year. With high costs of living and low wages, it also doesn’t help that the company reported quarterly profits of $14.3 billion in February. 

Tip of the Week

According to computer scientists, many people don’t understand the ramifications of smart device privacy violations. 

First of all, smart devices collect more data than you might realize. Data from a smart thermostat could expose the hours you are home and away, when you take a vacation, and possibly things such as the size of your home. A doorbell camera likewise can record your own activities as well as your neighbors, how often you have guests, and so forth. Smart TVs not only take note of how often you watch TV and what your show preferences are, but in some cases, may also record conversations. And on that topic, smart speakers (as well as Siri and other voice assistants on our phones) may be recording more often than we realize. 

At Namecheap, we believe in everyone’s fundamental right to privacy. Whenever you purchase a new smart device, you need to familiarize yourself with how these devices collect your data and how it is used. You also should consider disabling data collection that’s not related to what you want your device to do. Check the settings in your apps for privacy information and options, and if you’re not sure, do your research. To avoid a hacker gaining access to your devices, you should also regularly update firmware where available. 

For more information on smart devices, you might review our article that offers advice about using your home’s smart devices safely.

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