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Autonomous Vehicles

Your Car Records Everything, Now Cops Want That Data

There’s more data than ever. Who does it belong to, and should the cops be able to get it?

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Robotaxis being operated by companies like Waymo and Cruise use scores of cameras and sensors to avoid screwing up traffic and crashing into stuff. Those cameras record everything, though, including the faces and license plates of the people and cars they drive past … and now, the cops want access to that video.

“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom,” Socrates once said (probably), and I feel a little bit wiser now knowing that I’m CleanTechnica‘s resident “privacy nut.”

“You’re a bit of a privacy nut, right?” asked CleanTechnica CEO Zachary Shahan. “I mean, you’re not really a privacy nut, are you? But, more than me?”

I considered that.

Do I think a woman wearing a smartwatch in a connected car that her phone is tethered to is practically inviting a potential future of Handmaid’s Tale-style subjugation in whatever conservative state she happens to get pulled over in at some future date?

I do. So I’m a nutter. I feel wiser already.

Back in 2021

Back in 2021, San Francisco police were working to solve a murder when they reviewed local surveillance footage, zeroing in on a gray Dodge Charger they believed to be the shooter’s car. They also noticed some of Waymo’s self-driving cars driving by at around the same time, and then wondered if they could get a hold of that data.

“I believe that there is probable cause that the Waymo vehicles driving around the area have video surveillance of the suspect vehicle, suspects, crime scene, and possibly the victims in this case,” offered SFPD sergeant Phillip Gordon, who drafted a search warrant to Alphabet’s (Google’s) Waymo robotaxi service.

You’re not crazy — that’s a weird use of “probable cause.” Still, it’s likely a term that the good sergeant has heard before. A San Francisco Police Department training document obtained by Vice in 2022 reads, “Autonomous vehicles are recording their surroundings continuously and have the potential to help with investigative leads … investigations has already done this several times.”

Over at TechCrunch, a senior policy analyst at nonprofit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Matthew Guariglia, argues that the issue isn’t police gathering evidence, it’s that there’s not always transparency on how the data police will gather from such data seizures will be stored, or how the police can access it. “If an autonomous vehicle rolls up to a street corner and parks for a while, how would anyone know — or not know, for that matter — if there were police standing over a Cruise operator’s desk, saying, ‘Move a little bit closer to that corner because we want footage of a drug deal,'” said Guariglia.

For their part, Waymo claim that they “tailor” the data they provide to police to the specific subject of the warrant, blurring faces and pixelating license plates of bystanders and other vehicles. Cruise may do something similar, but both companies say police requests for data are rare.

Rare now, anyway. “[To] those who say it doesn’t matter if police have access to footage because they aren’t doing anything wrong,” Guariglia says, “you have no idea what you’re doing wrong … people in a lot of states where it was legal to get an abortion a few months ago suddenly have to live in fear that any day now, these states could retroactively prosecute people,” he says, sounding eerily like your favorite CleanTechnica privacy nutter. “And then you start to wonder about all those months where you traveled to your doctor or mental health specialist, how much data had been collected and what can law enforcement learn about me when I didn’t think I had anything to hide?”

Great questions, Matt. I wish I had answers — but that’s what you guys are for! You’re smart. You have opinions. Scroll on down to the comments section and let us know what you think of data privacy in the age of robotaxis, and whether or not you, too, might be a data privacy nut. Enjoy!

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I've been involved in motorsports and tuning since 1997, and have been a part of the Important Media Network since 2008. You can find me here, working on my Volvo fansite, riding a motorcycle around Chicago, or chasing my kids around Oak Park.


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