Roomba says leaked pictures including one of a woman on the toilet were taken by test vacuums, not purchased ones

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Roomba says leaked pictures including one of a woman on the toilet were taken by test vacuums, not purchased ones
Robot vacuums like Roomba could pose data privacy risks, experts say.Roborock
  • Robot vacuum maker iRobot confirmed that sensitive images leaked online were taken by its devices.
  • Roomba said the images, including one of a woman on the toilet, were taken only by test units.
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Roomba robot vacuums captured sensitive pictures that were later leaked on social media — including one of a woman sitting on the toilet — but the maker of the machines says they were taken by test models, not consumer units, MIT Tech Review first reported.

iRobot, which makes Roomba, said the self-driving vacuums were used by "paid data collectors and employees" as test units that would help the company develop its machine-learning capabilities. The disclosure comes as Amazon is working to close a $1.7 billion agreement to buy iRobot, raising questions about how tech companies use and protect the data they hoover up.

Data from these test units was marked by a contractor — noting things like whether the robot successfully made its way around an obstacle, like a coffee table. But images from that data got leaked to Facebook, Discord and other social sites, MIT Tech Review reported and iRobot confirmed to Insider.

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The images included woman in a purple shirt, face blurred, sitting on the toilet, the Tech Review reported, and a child laying on his stomach as he stares at the object recording him.

The images were leaked by paid Venezuelan contractors at data startup Scale AI who posted them to private groups on Facebook, Discord, and other platforms in 2020, MIT Tech Review reported.

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Even though the images did not come from Roomba customers, consumers often opt into getting their data monitored once they purchase "smart" devices as part of company privacy policies. Smart-device makers sometimes analyze the data, which can sometimes include personal or sensitive details, to train algorithms to improve their products.

James Baussmann, an iRobot spokesperson, confirmed the photo leak to Insider. When asked for further comment, Baussman referred Insider to a blog post from iRobot chairman and CEO Colin Angle.

Angle wrote that the test robots contained hardware and software modifications that were never available on the market to consumers. And Baussmann told Insider that "iRobot has strict data processing agreements in place with our service providers that require sensitive data be treated as confidential information."

In this case, the Scale AI contractors — also known as data labelers — worked on a project for iRobot to tag photos so the robot vacuums could better recognize objects in their surroundings, according to MIT Tech Review.

The data labelers are low-paid contract workers outside of the US. Experts who have spoken to labelers told MIT Tech Review that they found the work "really uncomfortable."

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iRobot told Insider that sharing internal images to social media groups violate Scale AI's privacy agreements and that it is ending its relationship with San Francisco-based Scale AI. Scale AI told the Review that its data labelers who shared the images broke their own agreements. Insider reached out to Scale AI for additional comment.

Meanwhile, more than 95% of iRobot's image data set comes from the homes of iRobot employees or volunteers at other third-party data vendors who agree to use development devices in exchange for undisclosed rewards, according to the Review.

Advanced devices such as iRobot's Roomba J7 series drive around homes and contain built-in front-facing cameras for navigation, object recognition, and home monitoring.

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