San Francisco Police Are Using Driverless Cars As Mobile Surveillance Cameras

For the last five years, driverless car companies have been testing their vehicles on public roads. These vehicles constantly roam neighborhoods while laden with a variety of sensors including video cameras capturing everything going on around them in order to operate safely and analyze instances where they don’t. 

While the companies themselves, such as Alphabet’s Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise, tout the potential transportation benefits their services may one day offer, they don’t publicize another use case, one that is far less hypothetical: Mobile surveillance cameras for police departments.

“Autonomous vehicles are recording their surroundings continuously and have the potential to help with investigative leads,” says a San Francisco Police department training document obtained by Motherboard via a public records request. “Investigations has already done this several times.”

The document released to Motherboard is a three-page guide for how officers should interact with autonomous vehicles (AVs), especially ones that have no human driver inside. It outlines basic procedures such as how to interact with the vehicles (”Do not open the vehicle for non-emergency issues” and ”Do not pull vehicles over unless a legitimate law enforcement action exists”) as well as whether to issue a citation for a moving violation for a car with no human driver (”No citation can be issued at this time if the vehicle has no one in the driver’s seat” but an incident report should be written instead). And the section titled “Investigations” has two bullet points advising officers of their usefulness in collecting footage. 

Privacy advocates say the revelation that police are actively using AV footage is cause for alarm. 

“This is very concerning,” Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) senior staff attorney Adam Schwartz told Motherboard. He said cars in general are troves of personal consumer data, but autonomous vehicles will have even more of that data from capturing the details of the world around them. “So when we see any police department identify AVs as a new source of evidence, that’s very concerning.”

“​​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.”

Waymo and Cruise are the two AV companies mentioned in the training document, although more have permits to test driverless cars in California (the state grants permission through the DMV, not the city). A Waymo spokesperson told Motherboard the company “requires law enforcement agencies who seek information and data from Waymo to follow valid legal processes in making such requests (e.g. secure and present a valid warrant, etc.). Our policy is to challenge, limit or reject requests that do not have a valid legal basis or are overly broad.” The company spokesperson also says they do not collect data “to identify individuals.” A Cruise spokesperson told Motherboard, “We work closely with law enforcement on our common goal of making our roads safer. We share footage and other information when we are served with a valid warrant or subpoena, and we may voluntarily share information if public safety is at risk. Cruise has always worked closely with the communities we serve to make transportation safer, cleaner, and more accessible and will continue to do so.”

SFPD’s use of AVs as mobile surveillance cameras follows the practices of the Chandler Police Department in Arizona, where Waymo has been testing AVs since 2017. But previous reports indicated these were rare instances involving traffic crimes like hit and runs. SPFD did not respond to a Motherboard email asking for more details on when and how often it sought footage from AVs.

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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