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

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

In the fall of 2020, gig workers in Venezuela posted a series of images to online forums where they gathered to talk shop. The photos were mundane, if sometimes intimate, household scenes captured from low angles—including some you really wouldn’t want shared on the Internet. 

In one particularly revealing shot, a young woman in a lavender T-shirt sits on the toilet, her shorts pulled down to mid-thigh.

The images were not taken by a person, but by development versions of iRobot’s Roomba J7 series robot vacuum. They were then sent to Scale AI, a startup that contracts workers around the world to label audio, photo, and video data used to train artificial intelligence. 

They were the sorts of scenes that internet-connected devices regularly capture and send back to the cloud—though usually with stricter storage and access controls. Yet earlier this year, MIT Technology Review obtained 15 screenshots of these private photos, which had been posted to closed social media groups. 

The photos vary in type and in sensitivity. The most intimate image we saw was the series of video stills featuring the young woman on the toilet, her face blocked in the lead image but unobscured in the grainy scroll of shots below. In another image, a boy who appears to be eight or nine years old, and whose face is clearly visible, is sprawled on his stomach across a hallway floor. A triangular flop of hair spills across his forehead as he stares, with apparent amusement, at the object recording him from just below eye level.

The other shots show rooms from homes around the world, some occupied by humans, one by a dog. Furniture, décor, and objects located high on the walls and ceilings are outlined by rectangular boxes and accompanied by labels like “tv,” “plant_or_flower,” and “ceiling light.”

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