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A Roomba filmed a woman in the toilet. How did screenshots get on Facebook?

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Brookman explains that the legal hurdles companies must overcome to collect data directly from consumers are fairly low. The FTC, or attorney general, can step in if there are “unfair” or “deceptive” practices, he notes, but they’re narrowly defined: Unless a privacy policy specifically says, “Hey, we’re not going to let contractors allow look at your data” and they share it anyway, says Brookman, companies are “probably okay with cheating, which is the main way” for the FTC to “enforce privacy historically.” To prove a practice is unfair, meanwhile brings additional burdens, including proving damages.”The courts have never really ruled on it,” he adds.

Most companies’ privacy policies don’t even mention what audiovisual data is being captured, with a few exceptions. iRobot’s privacy policy states that it only collects audiovisual data if a person shares images through its mobile app. LG’s privacy policy for the Hom-Bot Turbo+ with camera and AI explains that the app collects audiovisual data, including “audio, electronic, visual, or similar information, such as profile pictures, voice recordings, and video recordings.” And the privacy policy for Samsung’s Jet Bot AI+ Lidar Robotic Cleaner and Powerbot R7070, which both have cameras, collects “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 operate a Service or contact our Customer Service.” Meanwhile, Roborock’s privacy policy makes no mention of audiovisual data, though company representatives tell MIT Technology Review that consumers in China have the opportunity to share it.

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

Yet even the best efforts of companies like iRobot clearly leave gaps in privacy protection. “It’s not so much malice as just incompetence,” says Giese, the IoT hacker. “Developers are traditionally not very good [at] security stuff.” Their attitude becomes “Try to get the functionality, and if the functionality works, ship the product.”

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

Robot vacuum cleaners are just the beginning

The hunger for data will only increase in the coming years. Vacuum cleaners are just a small subset of the connected devices proliferating in our lives, and the biggest names in robotic vacuum cleaners, including iRobot, Samsung, Roborock and Dyson, speak of ambitions far beyond automated floor cleaning. Robotics, including home robotics, has long been the real prize.

Watch Mario Munich, senior vice president of technology at iRobot at the time, explain the company’s goals for 2018. presentation on the Roomba 980, the company’s first computer vision vacuum, he showed images from the device’s point of view—including one of a kitchen with a table, chairs, and stools—in addition to how they would be labeled and perceived by the robot algorithms. “The challenge is not in vacuuming. The challenge lies with the robot,” explains Munich. “We like to know the environment so we can change how the robot works.”

This larger mission is clearly reflected in what Scale’s data annotators were asked to label – not items on the floor to avoid (a feature iRobot promotes), but items such as “cupboard,” “kitchen countertop.” and “shelf,” which together help the Roomba J Series device recognize the entire room it’s operating in.

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