Invasion of the home robots: Is our privacy safe?

Amazon Astro

For better or worse, humanoid robots have become a common sight over the past few years, often found working in public places like restaurants, hotels, and airports.

And while home robots—and we mean vaguely humanoid ones, not Roombas—have emerged in various forms over the past decades, only recently have they shown potential for mainstream adoption, with Amazon’s Astro being the most high-profile.

But what about privacy? Doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea. Let’s first take a look at the robot options right now, and what the privacy concerns are if you want one in your home.

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What are the top home robots of 2021?

Many robots have been introduced with fanfare in recent years but still failed to gain traction. Here are a few right now that have a chance of building a significant customer base.

1. Amazon Astro

What does it do? Voice assistant on wheels doubling as home security

Amazon’s Astro is its debut robot powered by its Alexa voice assistant. The limbless droid wheels around to deliver calls, messages, timers, and reminders, and it can transport items put in its storage bin.

When you’re not home, Astro can give you a live view of your home interiors on the Astro app, which lets you control the robot remotely. A periscope camera that extends from its body gives you access to hard-to-see places, so you can perform tasks such as checking if your stove is turned off. Astro can also detect sounds of smoke alarms or glass breaking and alert you through push notifications.

Read more: 5 ways Amazon spies on you (even if you’re not a customer)

2. LOVOT

What does it do? Robot pet that craves attention

Don’t expect the LOVOT to do any housework. It’s about as useful as a puppy—which could be highly appealing, depending on who you ask.

The fuzzy wheeled bot resembles a mix of bear and penguin, and it’s designed to act like a child and crave love from you. It’ll make cooing sounds as you touch it or fall asleep when you rock it in your arms. If there’s more than one LOVOT in the room, as you hug one LOVOT, the other one will sulk and demand to be hugged, too.

3. Vector by Anki

What does it do? Voice assistant on wheels that vies for your attention

Vector is a friendly companion and personal assistant in one. Palm-sized with wheels covered in tank-styled treads, Vector functions like Siri or Alexa—so it can answer questions, obey commands, and play games.

But Vector is more than a voice assistant. The droid is full of personality, thanks to its eyes that shift, blink, or narrow to display emotions. He’ll also get excited and greet you when he sees you, and wheel to you when you summon him. He also loves being patted on its back, which features a touch panel—and will coo as you do.

Like many robot products, Vector’s survival isn’t certain—but its maker is trying to keep it alive.

4. Ugo

What does it do? Household chores

Japan’s Ugo can be the end of your household chores. That’s right—it can empty a rubbish bin, do your laundry, and clean the toilet. It can perform different tasks such as grabbing a towel out of the dryer and folding clothes with its movable arms.

Ugo is still in development and isn’t fully autonomous yet. It can move around on its own, but it needs to be controlled by an operator remotely to perform the tasks.

Can we trust home robots with our privacy?

Home robots might be able to provide convenience and entertainment, but these bots usually have multiple cameras, sensors, and microphones. The very parts that allow them to interact with their environment also open up a portal for their creators to collect our data.

Owned by a Big Tech company, the Astro is the most discussed when it comes to privacy. One concern is that it incorporates facial recognition technology so that it can deliver items to the correct person in a household. That said, you can turn off the microphone and camera on the Astro, and Amazon has taken pains to clarify that Astro does not send images to remote servers, with collected video footage staying on the device only.

But like any other connected devices—domestic bots are vulnerable to hacks that could, in extreme cases, give attackers a view through their cameras or even let them take control of your devices. And any images gathered could potentially be provided to law enforcement with a court order.

Tips for using home robots

Change your device name and password

Someone who’s trying to break into your home Wi-Fi network may have particular devices in mind that they know are more vulnerable. So set a device name that doesn’t give away what the product is.

Keep your home robot updated

Updating your robot’s software could help with fixing any bugs that can contain privacy or security vulnerabilities.

Disable internet access

This one isn’t the most realistic but still worth a mention, since most home robots presumably need an internet connection to perform its tasks. If the internet is required, the good news is you can install a VPN on your router to secure and encrypt your connection.

Read more: Why you shouldn’t ignore “update your device” messages

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