Lessons from iRobot CEO Colin Angle’s Data Privacy Fiasco

iRobot co-founder and CEO Colin Angle

When iRobot CEO Colin Angle talked with Reuters this week for a story on connectivity and virtual simultaneous localization and mapping (VSLAM) technology—areas that drive iRobot’s business—he likely didn’t expect to find himself defending his company’s data privacy policies once the story ran.

But that’s just what happened. Even though the point of the story was to highlight the exciting capabilities and potential of iRobot’s Roomba smart vacuum, the data privacy aspect of the article is what ended up creating its own headlines.

This turn of events illustrates the extremely sensitive nature of this issue for CEOs who are increasingly involved in creating products that rely on Big Data and Internet of Things technology, along with some critical lessons about what to consider when talking to the media—or any public—about these topics.

The Reuters article focused on the Roomba’s use of VSLAM technology, which allows the device to create a map of its environment as it moves around vacuuming the floor. That data could potentially be shared with other Internet-connected devices to provide homeowners with a wide variety of options in their smart homes, and the story indicated that iRobot could one day sell mapping data from users’ homes to smart home product companies like Amazon, Google and Apple.

Roomba

That last bit of information raised eyebrows once it hit the web, with privacy watchdog groups voicing concern over just how the data detailing the floorplans of Roomba owners’ homes would be used if it were sold to outside parties.

Jim Killock, executive director of privacy rights organization Open Rights Group, told Chief Executive that companies should treat the topic of customer data with great care to avoid raising privacy concerns from the public at large. Leveraging data from smart devices in people’s homes could be a particularly slippery slope as this kind of technology becomes more popular.

“Smart household products may enable companies to obtain information that we consider to be private, such as floor plans of where we live,” Killock says. “This is not necessarily personal data as protected under data protection law. [However,] companies should treat data collected in people’s homes as if it is personal data and ensure that explicit consent is sought to gather and share this information. Taking an ethical approach, rather than complying with minimal legal requirements, would build trust with customers.”

“Taking an ethical approach, rather than complying with minimal legal requirements, would build trust with customers.”

In the days after the story ran, Angle had to do some spin control in the media by stressing that the data would only be shared if customers gave permission and reiterating the company’s existing positions on data-sharing and customer privacy.

“iRobot takes privacy and security of its customers very seriously. We will always ask your permission to even store map data,” Angle told Mashable. “Right now, iRobot is building maps to enable the Roomba to efficiently and effectively clean your home. In the future, with your permission, this information will enable the smart home and the devices within it to work better.”

Angle also had to clarify that the data is not currently being shared outside of the company, and that specifics on how it might be used if shared have not yet been hammered out.

“We have not formed any plans to sell the data,” Angle wrote. “We do hope to extract value from the information, but would only do so with the permission of our customers.”

For CEOs who are looking to get the word out on how data from connected devices can be used to create more options for customers, the takeaway here is to be very mindful of how these ideas are presented publicly. While this kind of data can provide customers with amazing personalized experiences, it is critical to stress the data security policies that are in place to protect personal information and to specify whether customer data will be collected only if customers opt-in or grant permission. Otherwise, CEOs risk turning the spotlight on something other than their products.

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Patrick Gorman
Patrick Gorman is managing editor at Chief Executive magazine, based in Stamford, CT. His business journalism background includes 12 years covering the C-level marketing and technology spaces.

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