May 16, 2022
Serious questions are being raised about autonomous vehicles’ threat to privacy, following revelations that San Francisco Police are being encouraged to use footage from them to assist in investigations.
An internal training document for police in California, recently highlighted in a report on Vice, states that “autonomous vehicles are recording their surroundings continuously and have the potential to help with investigative leads.”
More alarmingly still, the document suggests it is already standard practice. “Investigations have already done this several times,” it continues.
San Francisco is something of a hotbed for autonomous car testing. General Motors’ Cruise has been offering a free robotaxi service there since February and Waymo is providing employees with driverless rides in the city. Other companies also have testing permits.
The three-page police document highlights the areas where Cruise and Waymo are operational and also offers some interesting insight into how officers are advised to deal with driverless cars.
Among the instructions are “Do not open the vehicle for non-emergency issues” and “No citation can be issued… if the vehicle has no one in the driver’s seat,” but it is the advice on how AVs can help investigations that has particularly alarmed privacy campaigners.
They argue that the combination of a fixed location camera network and AVs’ amassing footage and data while on the move will deliver surveillance on an unprecedented level.
Chris Gilliard, visiting research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center, told Vice that “as companies continue to make public roadways their testing grounds for these vehicles, everyone should understand them for what they are—rolling surveillance devices that expand existing widespread spying technologies.”
Although the San Francisco Police Department declined Vice’s request to comment on the internal document, Waymo and Cruise were more forthcoming, with both seeking to reassure users.
A Waymo spokesperson said the company requires law enforcement to follow valid legal processes in making such requests, while Cruise said they share footage and other information when served with a valid warrant or subpoena, but may also voluntarily share information if there is a risk to public safety.
However, with AVs already facing strict regulatory hurdles and an ongoing battle to win over skeptical members of the public, the suggestion that they will become a tool for police evidence gathering is unlikely to be welcomed by manufacturers.
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