Designing Commercial Therapeutic Robots for Privacy Preserving Systems and Ethical Research Practices Within the Home

Privacy and Security and Innovation and Economic Growth

Article Snapshot


John Chuang, Deirdre Mulligan and Elaine Sedenberg


International Journal of Social Robotics, pp. 1-13, 2016


Robots designed for therapeutic purposes are now available in many countries. These robots collect sensitive data over long periods of time. In the United States, health privacy laws do not always cover data collected by robots in the home.

Policy Relevance

Robot designers should ensure that therapeutic robots are designed to protect privacy.

Main Points

  • Robots developed for elder care, autism therapy, and other therapeutic purposes are available for consumers in many countries.
    • These robots contain cameras, microphones, and other sensors.
    • Biosensors capture intimate data such as facial expressions and difficulties with speech.
  • In the U.S., once therapeutic robots leave the laboratory and move into the home, they will no longer be regulated by academic ethical oversight boards.
  • Privacy policies are not designed to manage the large amounts of sensitive information these robots will collect over long periods of time; also, U.S. health privacy laws do not apply to privately purchased devices operating in the home.
    • Devices are likely to gather data on visiting neighbors and friends as well as patients.
    • Many devices will be connected to the Internet and share data with the cloud.
  • These examples illustrate problems that might arise with data collection by robots:
    • Data collected by a robot to help a child with speech delays is used 30 years later to market therapy to the (now adult) patient’s baby.
    • Data collected by a robot used by an Alzheimer’s patient at home is sold to data brokers and used to deny her family’s application for life insurance.
  • Robotic devices should be designed consistent with the Fair Information Principles; for example, robots should not collect data secretly, and users should be able to control whether information is stored locally or in the cloud.
  • Therapy robots will collect a treasure trove of data, but if the data subject’s informed consent is not properly obtained at the start, researchers will not be permitted to use the data.
  • In the United States, data uploaded to the cloud and stored by a firm can be accessed by the government without a warrant.
  • Robot designers should work with policymakers and data users to ensure that platforms designed for data sharing protect privacy.

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