Police are starting to turn to robotaxis — specifically all of that footage captured by cameras — for video evidence to help solve crimes. While it might not be a trend quite yet, evidence suggests that the robotaxi is the new proving ground for privacy advocates and law enforcement, especially as companies like Cruise and Waymo scale to new cities.
Self-driving cars can have more than a dozen cameras capturing 360-degree views and reams of data as they navigate city streets. And it turns out, that’s attractive to government agencies looking for evidence.
For instance, Bloomberg reported Thursday that it found nine search warrants that had been issued for autonomous vehicle company Waymo’s footage in San Francisco and Arizona’s Maricopa County. Waymo is also testing in Los Angeles. Cruise, a Waymo rival that has operations in San Francisco, Phoenix, Austin and Houston, also received a warrant, according to Bloomberg.
The instances all seem reasonable — police wanted help learning more about crimes ranging from murders to robberies to an attempted kidnapping.
“Autonomous vehicles are recording their surroundings continuously and have the potential to help with investigative leads,” reads a San Francisco Police department training document, which was obtained by Vice in 2022. “Investigations has already done this several times.”
Matthew Guariglia, senior policy analyst at nonprofit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), says the issue with police being able to tap data from otherwise unassuming vehicles is that there’s not always transparency on how the data is collected and stored, and 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.
Cruise and Waymo both told TechCrunch that, relative to the number of miles they drive, police requests don’t happen often. When they do, the companies say they only provide police with data when there’s a warrant or a subpoena.
“We carefully review each request to make sure it satisfies applicable laws and has a valid legal process,” a Waymo spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Waymo will analyze the requested data or information to make sure it falls within the scope of the warrant. If a request is overly broad (asks for too much information), we try to narrow it, and in some cases we object to producing any information at all.”
Both companies also say they tailor the data provided to the specific subject of the warrant. For example, if a warrant asks for information to identify another vehicle, Cruise may only provide stills from a video. If a request requires video, then Cruise might provide a short clip from a single camera.
Waymo says it blurs license plates and faces of people in order to protect the privacy of bystanders who may appear in the imagery requested in the warrant. A spokesperson told TechCrunch that there are exceptions to this rule. The company might, say, unblur the license plate of an offending vehicle in the case of a hit and run, but the warrant would need to provide a detailed description of the vehicle.
Cruise did not respond in time to confirm if it has a similar policy.
“Privacy is extremely important to us which is why we disclose relevant data only in response to legal processes or exigent circumstances, where we can help a person who is in imminent danger,” Navideh Forghani, a Cruise spokesperson, told TechCrunch.
Forghani went on to say that Cruise may share information without formal processes under genuine emergency circumstances, such as amber alerts, medical emergencies or active crimes — like sexual assault, assault with a deadly weapon, robberies, active shooter events and acts of terrorism.
But Guariglia says it’s a slippery slope. In recent years, Amazon’s Ring, a doorbell and home security company, cozied up to law enforcement around the country, giving police easy access to data from its network of individual consumer products. Guariglia says a number of companies feel compelled to build tools that allow police to access their data, even though the police aren’t their customer.
“We have to ask ourselves constantly, what do the companies get out of this?” Guariglia told TechCrunch. “That exact thing might not happen with Cruise [and Waymo], but the concern is that cities offer permits for these companies to operate. What happens if cities start to look more favorably on companies that have cozy relationships with police departments?”
I’m not doing anything wrong, who cares if the police have data?
For 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 said. “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?”
Self-driving cars not only operate in cities. Autonomous trucks are also being tested on highways in hopes of eventually launching commercial operations with a safety driver behind the wheel. In the U.S., where there are now 14 states that have completely banned abortion, and Idaho has restricted travel out of state for abortions, there is a real fear that local law enforcement could attempt to use AV footage to prosecute people who seek reproductive freedom.
Abuse of power is a main concern, and one with precedent.
In 2020, the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the SFPD for conducting mass surveillance of Black Lives Matter protesters using a downtown business district’s camera network. The records obtained by the EFF showed that SFPD received real-time live access to hundreds of cameras and “data dump” of camera footage amid demonstrations against police violence.
Going back further, privacy advocates point to the revelations revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013, a contractor for the National Security agency who leaked information on the PRISM program and bulk collection of phone metadata, which collected data on millions of people without targeted suspicion of wrongdoing.
And of course, any time you increase police access to surveillance and put communities under a microscope, the people who will get hurt are already marginalized communities, says Guariglia.
Tech has tested the boundaries of surveillance before
Aside from Ring, police departments in the U.S. also use automatic license plate readers to track the movements of vehicles and can use geofence warrants issued by a court to search databases and find all active mobile devices within a particular geofenced area. And, of course, police can request footage from the millions of security cameras in businesses and residences around the country.
Privacy advocates say that adding rolling networks of autonomous vehicle cameras and data to that cocktail of surveillance is cause for concern. At a minimum, there’s the potential of violation of basic rights to privacy. But the use of video footage for surveillance also opens the door for the abuse of power, such as scope creep, or surveillance of individuals unrelated to the crime being investigated. It can also lead to a chilling effect, wherein people might alter their behavior or expressions of free speech if they fear they are constantly being monitored.