SFPD Are Using Driverless Cars as Mobile Surveillance Cameras

I am shocked, shocked at this revelation about companies and organizations otherwise known for their scrupulous ethics.

"Autonomous vehicles are recording their surroundings continuously and have the potential to help with investigative leads," says a San Francisco Police department training document. "Investigations has already done this several times." [...]

"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," said Chris Gilliard, Visiting Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center. "Law enforcement agencies already have access to automated license plate readers, geofence warrants, Ring Doorbell footage, as well as the ability to purchase location data. This practice will extend the reach of an already pervasive web of surveillance." [...]

The use of AVs as an investigative tool echoes how Ring, a doorbell and home security company owned by Amazon, became a key partner with law enforcement around the country by turning individual consumer products into a network of cameras with comprehensive coverage of American neighborhoods easily accessible to police. Police departments around the country use automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) to track the movements of vehicles. The EFF has sued the SFPD for accessing business improvement district live cameras to spy on protestors.

Privacy advocates and researchers have long warned about the implications of increasingly sophisticated cars, but many of these warnings are essentially extensions of the privacy concerns of smartphones, where consumer technology tracks your movements and behavior, anonymizes it, and sells it to third parties in a manner that can be reverse-engineered to identify individuals. They rarely imagine a scenario where cars on the road are constantly recording the world around them for later use by police departments.

It is the combination of using fixed location camera networks with rolling networks of autonomous vehicle cameras and data that scares privacy advocates most. "The holistic outcome of these combined moving and fixed networks is a threat that is greater than the sum of its parts," Schwartz said. "Working together, [they can] more effectively turn our lives into open books."

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6 Responses:

  1. cmt says:

    A modern car - even without "full self driving" tech - is a sensor package with cell network uplink on wheels. They already do report traffic congestion, it's possible to scan parking space occupancy while driving by, and you could use that data to optimize that "searching-for-a-spot traffic". You could also report cars parking in bicycle lanes. Or check which car has overstayed it's parking duration. Or detect speeding cars, search for stolen license plates, report damaged traffic signs and littering, etc. Where do we want to draw the line (and how do you enforce that)? That's the discussion which is not happening - instead we're distracted with trolley dilemmas and tall stories like "cars need 5G networks for autonomous  driving" (wrong, that's why it's called "autonomous").
    Until then, rest assured that my bike has no sensors or electronics at all (it's all in the wetware).

    • jwz says:

      A modern car - even without "full self driving" tech - is a sensor package with cell network uplink on wheels.

      While technically true, most of their instrumentation faces inwards. "Normal" cars tend not to come with two dozen LIDAR cameras recording 360° 24/7 video that is saved forever with a document retention policy that lies somewhere between "NDA" and "LOL mine".
      • cmt says:

        You can buy an "upper-middle class" car with the "comfort package" - cruise control, emergency braking, lane keeping assist, parking assist etc. and you have your two dozen sensors. And that's not even the class of car for which "maybe level 3" "might be availabe in one or two model generations". The definition of "modern" car, according to manufacturers, has evolved quite a bit since I got my driver's license. And yes, these cars ship a shitload of "telemetry" back home, and no, most owners did not read the fine print in the manual (that shipped data is currently mostly inward-facing, but companies would like to get more external data and monetize that - not an easy feat in the land of GDPR). Insurances are already figuring out deals with the manufacturers on access to telemetry data - for "rewarding risk-minimized driving" as they put it.
        Of course, your current small, budget-oriented car does not have all the tech (yet), for, well, budget reasons.

  2. Jeff Bell says:

    Can they refuse to park in a bike lane?

  3. 4

    People who expect the post-Roe world to be a return to 1973 are in for a surprise at the combination of ubiquitous surveillance and drug-war-inspired law-enforcement viciousness directed at miscarriage patients and their doctors.

  4. LaughingBubba says:

    Yes folks, dust off your Person of Interest DVDs and remember in the real world there is no man in a dark suit to coming to help.

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