Cops Are Already Treating Self-Driving Cars As 'Surveillance Cameras On Wheels'

A white self-driving car drives down a San Francisco Street with the Bay Bridge in the background.
A white self-driving car drives down a San Francisco Street with the Bay Bridge in the background.

A Waymo autonomous vehicle drives along California Street on April 11, 2022 in San Francisco, California. San Francisco is serving as testing grounds for autonomous vehicles with Waymo, a Google subsidiary and Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, logging millions of test miles throughout San Francisco in 2021.

No matter how frustrating or dangerous self-driving taxis continue to be, companies are currently expanding their use in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Vegas. Police, meanwhile, are taking advantage of the self-driving taxi proliferation to investigate crimes and possibly violate your privacy.

Bloomberg took a deeper look into how self-driving car companies and police are working together. They found companies, like Waymo and Cruise, are proceeding with caution when releasing data to police investigations, for now.


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While security cameras are commonplace in American cities, self-driving cars represent a new level of access for law enforcement — and a new method for encroachment on privacy, advocates say. Crisscrossing the city on their routes, self-driving cars capture a wider swath of footage. And it’s easier for law enforcement to turn to one company with a large repository of videos and a dedicated response team than to reach out to all the businesses in a neighborhood with security systems.

“We’ve known for a long time that they are essentially surveillance cameras on wheels,” said Chris Gilliard, a fellow at the Social Science Research Council. “We’re supposed to be able to go about our business in our day-to-day lives without being surveilled unless we are suspected of a crime, and each little bit of this technology strips away that ability.”

Waymo said it occasionally receives requests from local police in markets where it operates and generally requires law enforcement to provide a warrant or court order. 

“We carefully review each request to make sure it satisfies applicable laws and has a valid legal process,” Waymo said. “If a request is overbroad (asks for too much information), we try to narrow it, and in some cases we object to producing any information at all.”

Cruise said it also strives to provide the minimum amount of data necessary to satisfy requests from law enforcement.

The real problem is we have no laws regulating the use, storage and access of such critical data in any way that protects the average citizens, despite efforts from lawmakers over the last decade or more to address the issue. Police were already using Ring security camera footage shot by private citizens and uploaded to Amazon’s Neighborhood app in their investigations without permission.

It is not just police and public robotaxis that you need to worry about when it comes to self-driving cars and surveillance. Tesla employees were recently caught passing around videos of their customers private lives surreptitiously recorded by privately owned cars. Such videos were passed around the company to multiple employees.

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