The iRobot Roomba robot vacuum captured intimate photos of a woman on the toilet and a young child that were then shared on Facebook.
According to a report before MIT Technology Review On Monday, the sensitive photos were taken by upgraded versions of iRobot’s Roomba J7 series robotic vacuum cleaners in 2020.
The images were then sent to Scale AI, a startup that contracts workers around the world to grade audio, image and video data used to train artificial intelligence (AI).
From there, the photos were shared on private Facebook groups and the Discord chat app by IT workers in Venezuela,
MIT Technology Review They obtained 15 screenshots of these private photos, which were posted on closed social media groups.
In one compromising photo, a young woman in a lavender shirt sits on a toilet, her shorts pulled down to mid-thigh. The woman’s face is obscured in the main image but not obscured in the scroll of snapshots below.
In another, a boy who appears to be about eight or nine years old, his face visible, lies on his stomach against the household tool on the floor of the hallway.
Other photos show rooms from people’s homes around the world. Furniture, decor, and objects are accompanied by labels such as “TV” or “plant_or_flower”.
Two million photos
A spokesperson for Roomba’s iRobot — which Amazon is in the process of acquiring — confirmed its devices had taken the photos.
The company says the 15 photos that ended up on social media were among the two million photos shared with Scale AI.
However, an iRobot spokesperson added that the images were taken by “own development bots with hardware and software modifications that did not exist nor were they on iRobot consumer products for purchase.”
The spokesperson added that the devices were handed over to “collectors and paid employees” who signed written agreements acknowledging that any data collected by iRobot, including video, can be sent back to the company for training purposes.
The company says that its testers are marked with a sticker showing that video recording is in progress and that it has advised test subjects to “remove anything they consider sensitive from any space in which the robot is operating, including children.”
iRobot refused to allow MIT Technology Review Offer consent agreements and do not make any of its paid collectors or employees available to discuss their understanding of the terms.
iRobot and Scale AI both admit that sharing images on social media violates their agreements. Scale AI also says that contract workers who share the images have violated their own agreements, too.
iRobot says the images came from its devices in countries like France, Germany, Spain, the US and Japan.
IT workers discussed the images in Facebook, Discord, and other online groups they created to share tips on handling payments and sorting the tricky stuff.
The image registration and tagging process is used to improve the robot vacuum’s computer vision, which allows the devices to precisely locate its surroundings using high-resolution cameras and an array of laser-based sensors.
This technology allows the Roomba robot vacuum to determine the size of a room, avoid obstructions such as furniture and cables, and adjust a cleaning routine.
The incident exposes flaws in a system in which vast amounts of data are exchanged between technology manufacturers and third-party companies that help improve their AI algorithms.
The report comes as Amazon works to close its $1.7 billion agreement to buy iRobot, raising questions about how the tech companies use and protect the data they collect.
Image credits: Title image licensed via Depositphotos. Main image source from MIT Technology Review
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