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Robot roaming some federal office buildings raises privacy concerns

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As the use of artificial intelligence is on the rise, many employers are looking at how to use the technology and the federal government is no exception. A small robot has been roaming through the hallways of some federal office buildings, but some public servants don't like this idea.

The device is called virbrix and it's been used in at least three federal office buildings this year.

CTV News is told that it collects specific data around workplace safety, but there are concerns around privacy.

"Well, members find it intrusive and quite demoralizing because they have a robot that's, first of all, in their work area that's doing the work that they're more capable of doing, and the robot can be a certain health and safety and environmental issue, because if you don't see the robot, you can easily trip over it," said Bruce Roy, Government Services Union's national president.

The device is created by a company called Global DWS. The owner says they focus on workplace health and safety.

"It's been very helpful in identifying and pointing out readings from temperature, humidity and air quality and different indoor air gases," said Yaha Saad, who is the Global DWS owner.

However, the robot has a camera and the union is concerned about surveillance of employees. The company says it doesn't store images and can't identify people. It was used in at least three federal office buildings during the month of March, but with the three-day return-to-office mandate only months away, there are concerns that the robot will be used again.

"It's noticeable. There's a robot strolling around amongst the cubicles and it can be quite distracting for our members and again, demoralizing knowing that there's a robot possibly checking out attendance," said Roy.

The federal government says the devices do not recognize individuals and do not have any ability to spy on or track employees in the workplace.

It's not clear whether this robot will be expanded to other workplaces.

"I think it's essential that any time you have robotics or any kind of instruments that you have to look under the hood. What exactly is being collected, in terms of the information that is being gathered? How is it being used? Is it disclosed to any unauthorized third parties?" said Ann Cavoukian, former privacy commissioner of Ontario.

Saad could not confirm whether the robot's use is being expanded to other workplaces within the federal government. A statement from the government says the robot is part of a pilot project at three different office locations only and for short periods of time.

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