May 13, 2022 - Technology

Self-driving cars could be potential crime witnesses

Illustration of a car as seen through a series of TV screens

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The police in San Francisco see camera-laden autonomous vehicles as potential witnesses in their criminal investigations, setting off alarm bells for privacy advocates, VICE reports.

Why it matters: As Axios has reported, self-driving cars capture and store huge databases of images so that they can train their algorithms and become better drivers. What that means is that bystanders are often captured in the footage, raising privacy concerns.

Driving the news: The police use of AV footage as evidence came to light because of a public records request from VICE's technology website, Motherboard.

  • A three-page San Francisco Police Department training guide provided to the website explained how officers should interact with AVs that don't have a human driver, mentioning Waymo and Cruise, two of the industry leaders.
  • Some of the guidelines include: "Do not open the vehicle for non-emergency issues" and "Do not pull vehicles over unless a legitimate law enforcement action exists."

A section titled "Investigations" advised officers of the AVs' usefulness in collecting footage, saying that this "potential evidence" had been accessed several times already.

  • "Autonomous vehicles are recording their surroundings continuously and have the potential to help with investigative leads."

Privacy advocates warn that law enforcement agencies are extending their "web of surveillance" using information like Ring doorbell footage, automated license plate readers and location data they purchase from private companies.

  • "​​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," Chris Gilliard, visiting research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center, told VICE.

The other side: "The SFPD can unequivocally state that we do not use autonomous vehicles to surreptitiously surveil people in the City of San Francisco," an agency spokesman told Axios by email.

  • He would not say how many times the department had requested or accessed AV video for investigations.

What they're saying: "Waymo captures data that's relevant for training our tech, not to identify individuals," a Waymo spokesman said.

  • "Our policy is to challenge, limit or reject requests that do not have a valid legal basis or that are overly broad."
  • A Cruise spokesman said: "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."
Go deeper