Law in the Internet Society
Should I purchase the iRobot Roomba?

I never really had to worry about cleaning or finishing household chores until I moved to the US – for all the wrong reasons, the cost of labor (especially in the informal sector) is alarmingly inexpensive in India. Once I moved to the US, I quickly discovered how expensive it is to hire cleaners in the US as a student and how arduous it is to clean the entire house myself, even if it is just twice a month. A friend of mine recommended that I purchase the iRobot Roomba, which needs little to no human intervention – it cleans the entire apartment on a pre-determined schedule, docks itself to a charger when its batteries are low, draws up a map of my apartment, and avoids areas that I mark as no-go zones.

Admittedly, for a second there, I was very tempted to pay an exorbitant $800 as a one-time expense for at least a few years of convenience. But on second thought, I wondered if the price I paid for my ‘convenience’ was limited to $800. Why was I more inclined to pay an extremely high one-time price for a device that will merely vacuum my apartment than to pay a reasonable wage to someone who will not only vacuum my apartment, but will actually clean it for a fraction of the price? Was it because the cost would ultimately be lower? Was it that my reliance on the machine over my reliance on another human being made me feel more independent? Or was it that I expected the Roomba to do a good enough job consistently each time, as opposed to going through the trouble of finding a cleaner who will do the best possible job each time? It was obvious to me that the bar for what I thought was satisfactory work product was much higher for a human cleaner than the Roomba. And yet, I was more inclined to purchase the Roomba or do the work myself than hire somebody to clean my apartment.

However, despite how innocuous it seems, the data collected by the Roomba can be used to determine my income-level, relationship status and my behavior patterns based on the maps of my apartment drawn by the Roomba alone (see: NYTimes). The implications of the sale or of such data cannot be overemphasized.

Man vs. Machine

In a society where human moral worth and dignity are still measured by the amount of labor expended by a human being in order to produce saleable goods or services, the mechanization of tasks appears to be an affront to such dignity. To suggest that the Roomba will serve as a substitute for the work product delivered through human labor would be preposterous. However, in the US, given the convenience it offers, we accept it, nonetheless. This would be very different in India, where the Roomba would most certainly not pass as a substitute for human labor. The difference here is simply that the cost of labor in India is far far lower. It follows, then, that if the cost of labor in the US was equally low, reliance on the machine in the US would be far lower. I was still inclined to purchase the Roomba.

IoT: Privacy and Security Concerns

I can say with at least some amount of certainty that the Roomba will make my life easier. However, the Roomba, like most ‘smart’ technology forming part of the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem, poses serious security and privacy threats to its users. There is a demonstrable lack of clarity with respect to how the data collected by IoT? devices will be used. The Privacy Policy and Data Security Policy of the iRobot Roomba are vague at their best and distressing at their worst (see especially ‘Robot environment information’ and ‘Disclosure of personal information’ in the Privacy Policy). iRobot relies on the click-wrap consent of its users for disclosing their data to an array of entities, including its group companies, service providers, and law enforcement, leaving a wide window open for misuse.

The data collected by IoT? devices is already being utilized in judicial and law enforcement proceedings. In 2014, data regarding the effects of an accident gathered by a Fitbit tracker was used as evidence in a personal injury lawsuit. Similarly, geofence warrants also rely on use of stored user data and information by companies such as Google in law enforcement proceedings. Considering the growing acceptance of tech-collected evidence in judicial processes, it may be prudent to err on the side of caution while deciding to purchase an IoT? device, even one as seemingly harmless as the Roomba.

In addition to these privacy concerns, one of the largest shadows looming over IoT? devices currently is inadequate security measures in place. As per a study conducted by McKinsey, all its respondents’ number one concern with IoT? devices was security. Mirai, a malware designed to scan the internet for IP addresses of IoT? devices, is a prime example of the gaping loopholes in the existing IoT? devices.

Further, the pace at which the number of IoT? devices is growing, there is a glaring deficit in the regulatory measures in place to ensure that personal data is (at least to some extent) secure. The accountability of private companies with respect to their utilization of personal data collected by IoT? devices is still relatively uncertain and self-determined.

Will I buy the Roomba?

These concerns, to me, far outweigh the purported paybacks of the Roomba. No, I will not be purchasing the Roomba. I’ll stick to the manual vacuum cleaner and mop that won’t store information about how big my room is and what furniture I am yet to buy. Maybe I’ll engage somebody to help me clean my apartment once a month.


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r3 - 10 Jan 2022 - 10:03:11 - AmishiMagdani
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