An internal SFPD document obtained by VICE News shows that not only can the SF Police Department pull the camera video from autonomous Waymo and Cruise cars, but more chillingly, that they have “already done this several times.”
We all had a good laugh last month at the “Ain’t nobody in it!” video when SFPD pulled over a driverless car that had no human being inside. A sensible conclusion to draw was that law enforcement was having a hard time coming to terms with these strange new fleets of robot cars that are suddenly ubiquitously all over San Francisco streets. But a new report from VICE News suggests that the relationship between the SF Police Department, and Google-owned Waymo and GM-owned Cruise, is far more advanced than we’d realized.
“‘Autonomous vehicles are recording their surroundings continuously and have the potential to help with investigative leads,’” says a San Francisco Police department training document obtained by Motherboard via a public records request,” VICE News reports. “‘Investigations has already done this several times.”
Screenshot: VICE News via SFPD
VICE News has the goods in a three-page SFPD training document outlining policies and procedures for dealing with autonomous vehicles when encountering issues with them on the road. A lot of it is perfunctory, nuts-and-bolts stuff, like where to send the citation if the self-driving car commits a traffic violation, or what to do if the car becomes disabled.
But the very chilling phrase that really jumps out is “Autonomous vehicles are recording their surroundings continuously and have the potential to help with investigative leads,” and “Information will be sent in how to access this potential evidence (Investigations has already done this several times).”
Privacy advocates are of course worried. “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 Shorenstein Center, told VICE News. “Law enforcement agencies already have access to automated license plate readers, geofence warrants, Ring Doorbell footage, as well as the ability to purchase location data. This practice will extend the reach of an already pervasive web of surveillance.”
For their part, Waymo said in a statement to VICE News that the company “requires law enforcement agencies who seek information and data from Waymo to follow valid legal processes in making such requests (e.g. secure and present a valid warrant, etc.). Our policy is to challenge, limit or reject requests that do not have a valid legal basis or are overly broad.”
Cruise took a similar line, saying, “ 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.”
We don’t know what cases or alleged crimes SFPD was referring to when they said they’d “already done this several times” with self-driving car surveillance data. Maybe it was to try to solve a hit-and-run, or something innocuous like that. But during the George Floyd unrest of 2020, that giant network of surveillance cameras that now covers several neighborhoods wasn’t just used to find and prosecute looters.
According to a 2020 lawsuit from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, SFPD used the video they accessed and “engaged in indiscriminate surveillance of protesters.” If we’ve already crossed the line of police pulling Big Tech firms’ surveillance video to monitor law-abiding citizens who happen to be their ideological opponents, then our civil liberties may have already crossed a point of no U-turn.