We stumbled across a series of posts being shared on reddit and forums with the shocking headline: “A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?”
The Roomba is series of robot vacuum cleaners with the ability to autonomously navigate around a floor area using. Comments on these posts express outrage, with some wondering how much sensitive information Roombas have been covertly collecting. With this being such a potentially explosive issue, we had to dig further. Can a Roomba actually record our activity? And, is there a risk of that video being leaked?
Most posts link back to an article published by MIT Technology Review. Having come into possession of the compromising screenshots in question, the author uses them as a way into broader discussions about data, AI, and privacy concerns.
According to the article, which includes statements from the company that produces the Roomba, iRobot, the recording was taken in 2020 by special development models of the vacuum. The subjects being recorded were employees or collectors who had been specifically given the Roombas for testing and had signed agreements acknowledging consent for video recording. According to iRobot, each unit had “big green stickers” reminding users of the video recording.
During this process, one user was recorded using the toilet. Video recorded by the special model units was then sent for processing and labelling by human data collectors whose job it is to censor sensitive information and label parts of the video to train the Roomba’s Al image data set. These human labellers were contracted by the company Scale, who were in turn contracted by iRobot.
As part of this specific project, contracted labellers communicated in private Facebook groups, which is where the recording screenshots (including those of the woman on the toilet) were shared. This was done in breach of policy, and iRobot has terminated their relationship with Scale as a result.
We are therefore labelling this claim true, with the caveat that it happened under very specific circumstances that are not applicable to general Roomba users.
Although the headline in itself is technically correct, it omits key information surrounding the context in which the recording was made and shared – namely that the recording was made with user consent with a controlled trial product, and was shared on a private Facebook group against policy.
While the article does follow up the headline with the subheading, “Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk,” reposted versions of the article only have the headline, leading to misinterpretation or incorrect information being spread – particularly if readers do not read the lengthy article.