Is that data under the bed? photo by Scott Lewis, Is that data under the bed? But what about the bed bugs? Photo by Scott Lewis,

Smart vacuum cleaners are not just for cleaning, they can map out our home, and the data they collect would have value: but in the era of GDPR can this really happen?

These days, selling us a product seems to be the least of the objectives of companies in the business of selling products. Because now they can collect data too, and that is far more valuable.

Or so goes the narrative. Presumably there is a limit, if everything collects data to make it possible to sell us everything more effectively, then there must be a point, in the customer company chain, when someone buys something and the money they pay funds all the data that was collected that helped facilitate the sale.

Now it turns out that robot vacuum cleaners, the most famous of which are the Roomba products from iRobot, can collect data too. Armed with sensors to help the robo cleaners navigate our living room, hall and the rest of our home, the data they collect to help them do their job could be used to help others do their job too.

At first glance, it is quite hard to see how such data is valuable – so there is data on the shape of our living room – big brother knows our dining room has curves – it may even know how dusty room 101 gets.

But then it turns out it is all for our own good – for one thing, the latest Roomba models can talk to Amazon’s Alexa, very helpfully telling Alexa if a room’s acoustics are such that it needs to direct its voice differently.

Or maybe it can tell Alexa if the room is getting dusty in places it can’t reach – As Orwell might have said: "Just after the clock struck 13, the lady in the box said: 'Smith, clean your windows.'”

Or it can tell your internet provider if the bandwidth is not so good – how nice, saves you the bother of ringing your provider and staying on the phone for couple of hours.

Reuters quoted Colin Angle, the boss at iRobot, as saying: “There’s an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home the user has allowed to share.” Note that, “allowed to share.”

But what about privacy – you can sense that the guys and gals at ICO – Information Commissioner's Office – are already on the case. When GDPR is legally enforceable, next year, companies that don’t follow the rules regarding customer’s privacy could pay a fine of up to four per cent of turnover. They have to clean up their act, and that, presumably, includes companies in the business of cleaning.

But Mr Angle was quick to reassure us. “iRobot takes privacy and security of its customers very seriously. We will always ask permission to even store map data. 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 devices within it to work harder.”

It turns out that the terms and conditions – which we do of course all read – does refer to such usages.

But in a new development, iRobot’s chief operating officer, Christian Cerda said the company “would not rule out” selling data such as floor maps.

He said that “a very smart robot vacuum could know the layout of a home, you could use the map of the home to interact with the rest of the smart home and somewhere in the cloud there would be request of an exchange from iRobot to Amazon.”

And with those comments, the ICO no doubt got all interested again. But he added “How do you do it without breaking the consumer trust? [He might add, how do you do it without breaking GDPR rules?] Those questions are what we would have to avoid as we progress to product development.”

But fear not, if you want to blow some dust off the dirty world of data protection, there is always the GDPR Summit London, taking place on January 30th. The event is a one-day deep-dive event that will explore the effects of the General Data Protection Regulation on business critical processes.

Find out more, and hoover up your unanswered questions at the summit.