Forget the Russians - your Roomba is spying on you

This week New York Times reported that our Roombas are collecting data - mappings of our homes, to be specific - and is considering selling this data to 3rd parties.

I had two very different reactions immediately upon reading this article: 

  • As a normal human, I was concerned that my Roomba is now going to tell Amazon that my dog toy to dog ratio is alarmingly high.
  • As a product manager, my immediate reaction was "GOOD GOD SOMEONE TELL ME HOW I CAN GET MY HANDS ON THIS DATA."

High quality, reliable user data is product manager gold. Personally, in my job, I'm always trying to get my hands on new data streams that my users are asking for. I use this data to make my product better. 

However, there is a tug-of-war between privacy and making this user data available, so product people can build cool products that consumers are asking for. And a lot of people are concerned about privacy. The question that remains is, when does it get weird?

When are users comfortable with their data being collected, and shared with 3rd parties? 

Here are a few scenarios.

  1. A service is free (or significantly cheaper), since the product's monetization strategy is selling its users' data. A classic example is Google, who collects massive amounts of user data, and monetizes it in the form of targeted advertising (among a myriad of other products). As a company, Google has got to make money somehow. They can't just build the best search engine in the world and give it away for free.

    The questions is, would we prefer to pay to use Google - say, a monthly subscription for unlimited search - as opposed to Google collecting and effectively 'selling' our data?
  2. 'Personal Data'... that's not very personal. OK Cupid - a dating site on which users answer hundreds of personal questions to complete their profiles - admitted to selling user data years ago (2008- 2010), but ultimately that advertisers weren't interested in the random data they were able to provide. And, in the end, if OK Cupid is telling Chipotle how many burritos I eat on a daily basis, do I really care? Is this data really that personal?
  3. When data collection enables product development that we want. At the end of the day, companies collect user data so they can build - and improve - products that consumers are asking for. I want my Nest to automatically turn down the heat when I leave for work in the morning. In order to achieve this, Nest has to collect data on when I typically leave the house. Without this user data, it can't do what I want it to do.
  4. A company is collecting users' data for 'the greater good.' Take 23andMe - DNA Testing service - as an example. 23andMe's long term plan is not to make a huge profit selling you $200 ancestry kits. No, no, kids. 23andMe has publicly stated as such. As early as 2015, Patrick Chung, a 23andMe board member, told Fast Company, “The long game here is not to make money selling kits, although the kits are essential to get the base level data.”

    23andMe's long term plan is to provide DNA data to drug companies (and perhaps others). As Wired reported back in 2015, "...  23andMe announced that it would share anonymized data on 650,000 of its customers with Pfizer, as well as sequence the full genomes of 3,000 people with Parkinson’s in a bid to develop a drug with Genentech."

    The question remains Does this make you angry, or do you just not care? Let's say 23andMe's sharing this data with drug companies leads to a cure for Parkinson's - Does that change your opinion?

Honestly, I don't know where I stand on the 4 scenarios above. As a product manager, I depend on data as user feedback, and to make my product better.

As a normal human, I often wonder if 'privacy' is an experience of the past. As was stated in a New York Times article this week, "... if you have a smartphone, and you still have an expectation of privacy, you’re fooling yourself.”