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Autonomous Vehicles

EFF: Don’t Let Police Turn Our Cars Into Surveillance Platforms

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Update: Ring reached out to me to offer some important corrections to some of what I wrote below. The company wants us all to know that they don’t give footage or images to police departments without some form of permission from the camera’s owner (and have never done this in the past), and police are never given direct contact information of camera owners by Ring. As the sources I linked pointed out, they’ve improved this process over time to make it more transparent and easily understood by users.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has an important warning for us about autonomous vehicles, as well as other vehicles with cameras:

The Home Security Camera Problem EFF Talks About

For those unfamiliar with the issue of Ring cameras, there’s a dark side that comes with protecting your home from criminals. When you install a camera and let someone else manage the footage (which is way easier than managing it yourself on site, and more secure), you give some of your rights away. Normally, the police would have to politely request footage from any onsite cameras you may have, and would have to get a judicial order if you refused. But companies like Ring have angered some customers by just giving security camera footage away.

Honestly, most people want to help the police solve crimes in their neighborhoods. It helps keep criminals off the streets (assuming some judge doesn’t just turn them out into the street again), deters crime, and might even help the victim of a theft get their property back. But the problem arises when people didn’t knowingly give the police permission to take the footage and see views from their own yard show up on a police department’s Twitter and Facebook pages.

In other words, the process needs to be transparent and leave the power in the hands of the camera’s owner, and not something that fools people into unwillingly cooperating with the police. This not only respects the rights of the camera’s owner, but gives them the opportunity to better respect their neighbors and know what, exactly, the police need footage for before it gets handed over. For example, a camera’s owner would probably gladly hand footage over to help catch a thief who stole their neighbor’s car, but might not be so happy to let police spy on protesters or others who committed no crime in the neighborhood.

The bigger problem the EFF and ACLU point out is that a massive surveillance system accessible to police isn’t just an issue of getting the camera owner’s permission. The scale of this new surveillance tool, far beyond just asking one or two people for footage, creates many opportunities for abuse (such as spying on protesters committing no crimes) that any single user can’t really anticipate or be aware of when footage is requested. In short, we don’t know whether we’re helping enable a legitimate criminal investigation or human rights abuses going forward.

This Problem Is Going Mobile

This new tweet, which links to this article at Vice, shows us that instead of retracting as more of the public learns of possible abuse, is growing into new areas where new privacy and consent challenges emerge. Instead of single-view cameras installed on homes, now we’re dealing with cars that gather footage in every direction.

Like home video cameras, the cameras that are increasingly adorning cars are extremely useful. It can be anything from a small dashcam system that helps keep people from pulling insurance fraud or bribery scams on you, or it could be something that enables a car to eventually operate itself with no need for a driver. In between those use cases, we have life-saving ADAS systems that enable things like automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist, and much more.

Nobody is saying that cars shouldn’t have cameras at all, but they are saying that we need to make sure there are robust protections for the rights of the vehicle’s owner and the rights of those who end up getting recorded by these cameras.

Vice recently figured out that police departments are already taking aim at getting that footage when they got their hands on some San Francisco Police Department internal training documents. The document starts off on the right foot, giving police officers good guidance on taking care of problems that can arise with autonomous vehicles.

For one, if they see an autonomous vehicle do something illegal, they can pull it over and write up a report, but they can’t hand the car a citation if there’s no driver. But, they can make a report that gets sent to the manufacturer by other internal processes. The same goes for parking violations. Also, if an officer sees a disabled or stuck autonomous vehicle, they aren’t supposed to cite it or attempt to move it. The document reminds officers that a team will show up to take care of the stuck vehicle within 5-15 minutes, and that officers should just wait for them and direct traffic as necessary.

The controversy starts when the document mentions getting footage from these vehicles for investigations. It says that these vehicles do record their surroundings, and that police officers can contact the companies to ask them for footage. More importantly, it points out that this already happens and that crimes have been investigated using AV footage.

Officers are also given maps in the document showing where different AV companies operate, both for the purposes of knowing where they’d encounter public safety issues as well as for getting cameras for investigations.

So, all of the same privacy concerns that came up with Ring cameras are here with us again, except this time there isn’t usually a homeowner involved. Instead, a corporation like Cruise or Waymo handles these requests, and gives people the car drove by no information about how footage of them was used. Because they’re private vehicles, nobody can even ask these companies to tell us under what conditions they cooperate with police, and whether civil rights are even a part of those decisions at all.

EFF’s tweet is pretty straightforward about how to deal with this: “We’ve learned this lesson before. Maybe we should just call it the Amazon Ring Hypothesis: Absent strict protections, any sensors that collect data and footage about people will eventually become a tool of police surveillance — even self-driving cars.”

Instead of trying to fix privacy and civil rights problems after the fact, we should be proactive about how data from vehicles with cameras gets used. Legislators can create important privacy protections and limit police officers’ ability to use such footage to legitimate criminal investigations. Companies and individuals running the cameras can also help by having their own policies for when cooperation will happen, and under what conditions such requests are vetted for more information and/or denied.

It’s an important issue that we must tackle now before autonomous vehicles get on the road in greater numbers and catch almost everything that happens everywhere.

Featured image by GM and Cruise.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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