A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Brookman explains that the legal barriers companies must clear to collect data directly from consumers are fairly low. The FTC, or state attorneys general, may step in if there are either “unfair” or “deceptive” practices, he notes, but these are narrowly defined: unless a privacy policy specifically says “Hey, we’re not going to let contractors look at your data” and they share it anyway, Brookman says, companies are “probably okay on deception, which is the main way” for the FTC to “enforce privacy historically.” Proving that a practice is unfair, meanwhile, carries additional burdens—including proving harm. “The courts have never really ruled on it,” he adds.

Most companies’ privacy policies do not even mention the audiovisual data being captured, with a few exceptions. iRobot’s privacy policy notes that it collects audiovisual data only if an individual shares images via its mobile app. LG’s privacy policy for the camera- and AI-enabled Hom-Bot Turbo+ explains that its app collects audiovisual data, including “audio, electronic, visual, or similar information, such as profile photos, voice recordings, and video recordings.” And the privacy policy for Samsung’s Jet Bot AI+ Robot Vacuum with lidar and Powerbot R7070, both of which have cameras, will collect “information you store on your device, such as photos, contacts, text logs, touch interactions, settings, and calendar information” and “recordings of your voice when you use voice commands to control a Service or contact our Customer Service team.” Meanwhile, Roborock’s privacy policy makes no mention of audiovisual data, though company representatives tell MIT Technology Review that consumers in China have the option to share it. 

iRobot cofounder Helen Greiner, who now runs a startup called Tertill that sells a garden-weeding robot, emphasizes that in collecting all this data, companies are not trying to violate their customers’ privacy. They’re just trying to build better products—or, in iRobot’s case, “make a better clean,” she says. 

Still, even the best efforts of companies like iRobot clearly leave gaps in privacy protection. “It’s less like a maliciousness thing, but just incompetence,” says Giese, the IoT hacker. “Developers are not traditionally very good [at] security stuff.” Their attitude becomes “Try to get the functionality, and if the functionality is working, ship the product.” 

“And then the scandals come out,” he adds.

Robot vacuums are just the beginning

The appetite for data will only increase in the years ahead. Vacuums are just a tiny subset of the connected devices that are proliferating across our lives, and the biggest names in robot vacuums—including iRobot, Samsung, Roborock, and Dyson—are vocal about ambitions much grander than automated floor cleaning. Robotics, including home robotics, has long been the real prize.  

Consider how Mario Munich, then the senior vice president of technology at iRobot, explained the company’s goals back in 2018. In a presentation on the Roomba 980, the company’s first computer-vision vacuum, he showed images from the device’s vantage point—including one of a kitchen with a table, chairs, and stools—next to how they would be labeled and perceived by the robot’s algorithms. “The challenge is not with the vacuuming. The challenge is with the robot,” Munich explained. “We would like to know the environment so we can change the operation of the robot.” 

This bigger mission is evident in what Scale’s data annotators were asked to label—not items on the floor that should be avoided (a feature that iRobot promotes), but items like “cabinet,” “kitchen countertop,” and “shelf,” which together help the Roomba J series device recognize the entire space in which it operates. 

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