FBI Thinks Driverless Cars Could Be Criminals' New Best Friends

from the I,-for-one,-welcome-out-new-Robot-Death-Car-overlords dept

There have been dozens of techno-panics over the past several years, but one usually expects cooler heads to prevail in government agencies where the word “investigations” is in the title and the employees have access to plethora of cutting-edge equipment. (Note: said “cutting-edge equipment” for surveillance only. Agency computer systems remain an outdated mess and the idea of recording in-custody interviews has finally arrived nearly four decades too late.)

We are, of course, talking about the FBI. The FBI’s relationship with technology is painfully one-sided. On one hand, it’s pushing to gets its biometric database online and fully operational, hopefully years before its report on this database’s privacy implications finally arrives. On the other hand, it has argued in court (via the DOJ) that smartphone technology vastly outpaces law enforcement’s tools to access possible evidence and, therefore, should be obtainable without a warrant.

But it is an investigative agency, which would seem to indicate it has the ability to gather facts and come to informed decisions. But it seems to prefer worried conjecture to actual data. (See also: Insane Clown Posse fans are an organized criminal entity.) But here it goes again, seeing another technological development as another way for criminals to gain the upper hand.

In an unclassified but restricted report obtained by the Guardian under a public records request, the FBI predicts that autonomous cars “will have a high impact on transforming what both law enforcement and its adversaries can operationally do with a car.”

In a section called Multitasking, the report notes that “bad actors will be able to conduct tasks that require use of both hands or taking one’s eyes off the road which would be impossible today.”

The FBI looks at something that has the potential to make roads much safer and sees… autonomous vehicles loaded with gunmen, all of whom can use both hands to fire at pursuing law enforcement… or something.

Autonomy … will make mobility more efficient, but will also open up greater possibilities for dual-use applications and ways for a car to be more of a potential lethal weapon that it is today.”

Sure, the driverless vehicles could be loaded up with explosives and “told” to drive itself to its destination, but that seems like an incredibly expensive way to deliver a payload. And sure, vehicles might be hacked to ignore everything about them that makes driving safer, but that last part is nothing a human operator can’t do in a normal, cheaper vehicle. And any vehicle with a driver can still carry armed criminals/explosives.

Even the FBI admits that autonomous cars present the agency with certain advantages, including the fact that the first few iterations of car AI will be able to do little more than recreate OJ Simpson’s “getaway.”

[A]utonomous cars would likely face many hardships with evasive driving or car chases…

But using this AI for good (and hacking it to serve its purposes) may also revolutionize the FBI and law enforcement’s pursuit techniques.

“[A]lgorithms can control the distance that the patrol car is behind the target to avoid detection or intentionally have a patrol car make opposite turns at intersections, yet successfully meet up at later points with the target.”

While some of this report is undoubtedly dedicated to “what if” scenarios not unlike the risk disclosures included in IPOs, there’s still something ridiculous about an investigative agency being so tuned into the terror frequency that it sees criminal intent in every technological advancement. If we wanted fear-based speculation about potential havoc-wreaking by new inventions, we’d ask the MPAA.

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Comments on “FBI Thinks Driverless Cars Could Be Criminals' New Best Friends”

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Kaemaril (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Oh, you think that’s bad? Some people had more drastic measures in mind in the early 20th century …

Proposed Rules of the FARMERS’ ANTI-AUTOMOBILE SOCIETY OF PENNSYLVANIA ( from http://www.vmcca.org/bh/aaa.html ):

“1. Automobiles traveling on country roads at night must send up a rocket every mile, then wait ten minutes for the road to clear. The driver may then proceed, with caution, blowing his horn and shooting off Roman candles, as before.

2. If the driver of an automobile sees a team of horses approaching, he is to stop, pulling over to one side of the road, and cover his machine with a blanket or dust cover which is painted or colored to blend into the scenery, and thus render the machine less noticeable.

3. In case a horse is unwilling to pass an automobile on the road, the driver of the car must take the machine apart as rapidly as possible and conceal the parts in the bushes.”

Good job those suggestions never made it into the statute book 🙂

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: So hard to do our job!

The leech on society of speed trap towns will quickly disappear with self driving cars.

The type of town I mean is a town that derives its income from speed traps. Manufactures nothing. Trades nothing, except to the extent necessary to keep the town’s major speed trap industry operations. Most real towns exist as a place to live, do productive work for economic gain, and trade goods and services with one another. Leech towns do none of these things. Even local businesses exist only to service the speed trap industry.

PaulT (profile) says:

“bad actors will be able to conduct tasks that require use of both hands or taking one’s eyes off the road which would be impossible today.”

Such as falling asleep, texting, reading, eating, having another beer after you had a few at the pub before getting in the car, or anything else that currently leads to crashes and deaths on the road? Perhaps something new, such as getting changed, preparing for meetings or job interviews, working on presentations and assignments or basic physical interaction with a loved one (be that sexual or just spending some quality time entertaining kids or animals that would normally be left ignored)?

Oh, sorry, we’re only meant to be considering the worst-case-scenario bad outcomes here, not the more likely positive ones…

“[A]utonomous cars would likely face many hardships with evasive driving or car chases…”

Including the fact that they’ll probably have a back door allowing the vehicle to be remotely and safely stopped, avoiding the danger commonly associated with modern pursuits? Come on, you know they’ve asked for it already.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

That right there is one of, if not the, biggest problems with driverless cars. If they have an outside connection at all, which they will likely require to know the street layout, speeds and whatnot, that connection can and will be hacked at some point.

Bad enough that some cars currently can be remotely shut down(generally in case of late/missing payments on them), if they can be remotely driven, it could make for a massive mess at best.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

There’s an argument both ways. Taking the driver out of the equation could save a huge amount of lives and money in numerous ways, ranging from stopping idiots from texting or drinking while driving to accidents caused by bad driving habits in poor conditions, or even simply being able to automatically manage traffic congestion in the most efficient way. Whether these benefits are worth the risks is a very good argument to have on both sides.

Personally, I’d be more concerned about what override functions are available in the case of malfunction – especially if the things depended on current GPS maps – than some remote hacker, but it’s always worth considering.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:


No one has pointed out that a chase would never happen in an autonomous car. There would be no stopping at stop signs, going the speed limit, or signaling turns. Autonomous cars are programed to follow the rules of the road, such as pulling off the road for flashing red and blue lights. Even if the cop isn’t pulling over the autonomous car, it still is suppose to pull off the road to let the cop pass.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Supprising

If all the other autonomous cars act together, like an ant colony, they could stop the reckless automobile. It could be as simple as clogging up the roadway. You’re cruzing along at 80 mph, and up ahead, total impenetrable wall of cars, like on an ordinary New York city block.

Then suddenly behind you, an impenetrable wall of cars.

In fact, imagine law enforcement being able to summon fleets of empty vehicles to do this. This is more likely if large numbers of autonomous cars are now owned by individuals. (No big capital outlay, just pay by use, summon cars like pushing the button for an elevator. Public transit available in even the smallest towns.)

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: But that is a future problem

It is a future problem, but the future may not be as far off as you think.

Sometimes innovations can disrupt and change society astonishingly fast.

In 1993, almost nobody had heard of the internet. The primary internet apps were telnet, email, usenet and ftp. There was this new thing called gopher. The web was the edge. By 1998, everybody had heard of the web (and didn’t know the difference between the ‘web’ and the ‘internet’), and many people were getting computers mostly because of the internet.

This new mp3 compression format came along. Almost overnight there were solid state mp3 playback devices. Then the iPad came along and it was a sensation. Then the RIAA realized that people could listen to music with unparalleled convenience and that it must be stopped — so they sued Diamond Rio for simply making a device, that could be used to play legal music.

Like the two examples I just gave, driverless cars are of such HUGE utility to society that once they are ready, they could take over the roads astonishingly fast. To facilitate driverless cars, I could foresee eventually banning all human driven vehicles from public roadways. Yes, seriously. If you only had driverless cars, then you could eliminate all stops. No more stop signs, traffic lights, etc. Vehicles could share intersections without stopping. Continuous cross traffic going through intersections with only speed adjustments taking place just prior to the intersection.

A lot of ‘future’ things, like flat panel displays that were a dream since the 70’s, once ready, can take over the world very rapidly. HDTV. Rear window defrosters. Broadband replacing dial up modems.

Rekrul says:

Re: Re: But that is a future problem

Like the two examples I just gave, driverless cars are of such HUGE utility to society that once they are ready, they could take over the roads astonishingly fast.

There’s one big difference between autonomous cars and the other things you mentioned;

None of them cost $100-200 thousand like the Autonomous cars will.

Sure, the price of things like computers and flat screen displays has drastically come down, but then again, they were never priced at more than double most people’s yearly salary to begin with.

What’s the average price of a normal new car today? $30,000? $40,000? Most people have trouble affording that, which is why used car dealerships are so popular. Many people are having trouble paying their monthly bills.

Sure, the rich will buy these cars, since they have money to burn, but they will remain out of reach for the average person until such time as their price comes down to that of a normal car, and people are trading them in for newer models, so the old ones can be bought at used car prices. That’s not likely to happen for many years. I doubt it will happen in my lifetime. Maybe by the time I’m 80, but by then I probably won’t even know what year it is, let alone what kind of a car I’m riding in.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: But that is a future problem

One of the things self driving cars would enable is a business model of pay per use. Poor people would no longer need the capital outlay to buy an expensive car. You would pay as you use it, like riding a bus. Summon the car like you would an elevator, then go where you need to go. Even the smallest towns might end up with public transportation this way.

I don’t believe that self driving cars will add that much to the cost of a car. You seem to suggest that self driving boosts the cost from $30-$40 K to $100-$200 K. I don’t think so. I bet the cost of self driving adds a few thousand dollars.

Despite the complexities of the development, the cost of the hardware is not that great. Like transistor radios, light bulbs, calculators, etc. A lot of technology at a low price. Transistor radios and calculators might have started expensive, but the price dropped very rapidly once they could be mass manufactured. It’s basically a computer, software, sensors and servo actuators to manipulate the car controls. None of these things are that expensive to mass produce.

Slightly off topic for a reply, but I think self driving cars will, like the internet, enable a lot of things that are still presently difficult to imagine. Put your kid in a car and send them off to grade school. No specialized school bus needed. The kid can equally easily get back home. Handicapped people who cannot drive, could now get around.

Parking would become a thing of the past. Your car would let you off at the front door of a store or mall, and then park itself — possibly far away. Handicapped parking spaces also disappear.

Who will hate self driving cars?
* Taxis, Buses, Car services
* Car dealers if more and more people use pay-per-use fleets and choose not to own
* Bankers who can’t make car loans to people who choose not to own, but rather pay per use
* Detroit, whose vision, and therefore major conflict with Google as seen in their meetings where they talk past each other, is for people to own and frequently upgrade cars
* Companies that make traffic signals and signs (after human drivers are eventually banned from the roads)
* Ambulance chasing lawyers

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: But that is a future problem

“None of them cost $100-200 thousand like the Autonomous cars will.”

What’s your citation for this figure? Plus, what makes you think they won’t come down quickly?

Plus, as DannyB mentions below, you’d be mistaken in thinking that the primary use for these cars will simply be to replace standard personal cars, at least to begin with.

On top of that, so what? Cars themselves took decades to become commonplace and affordable for the average person, and longer than that for them to become something that most people owned. If it takes a couple of decades for these to become a standard purchase for most people, that’s not really a problem.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

They're taking the wrong approach

Given the automobile’s current approach to security, which can be summed up as:

1. Pay no attention to it during design, architecture, implementation or deployment.

2. Deny all reports of problems.

3. Suppress research on security issues whenever possible via copyright, trademark, or other IP claims.

There is no way that autonomous vehicles should be permitted anywhere real life human beings on real live roads anytime in the forseeable future.

The problem isn’t the use of these cars, the problem is the cars themselves.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Sure, the driverless vehicles could be loaded up with explosives and “told” to drive itself to its destination, but that seems like an incredibly expensive way to deliver a payload. And sure, vehicles might be hacked to ignore everything about them that makes driving safer, but that last part is nothing a human operator can’t do in a normal, cheaper vehicle.

Seriously? This is the sort of lack of foresight and understanding of technology that you’re always criticizing others for. Yeah, they’re expensive now, but just wait a few Moore cycles…

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re:

I can imagine that one of the first uses for autonomous vehicles will be for rental trucks. The advantages: non-stop travel to the destination and the customer can then drive their car to the same destination. The, initial, high cost of autonomous vehicles can be absorbed easily by a nationwide truck rental company. There will be a higher demand, and perhaps a premium charged, compared to normal trucks. Even if there are one or two bombing incidents per year, killing 200 or 300 people apiece, using autonomous Ryder, or Uhaul if you prefer, trucks this will be more than offset by the lives saved because automation has replaced fallible human drivers.
I don’t fault the FBI for thinking forward about the potential dangers of autonomous vehicles. I would fault them, or anyone, if they used the potential for misuse as an argument to outlaw or discourage such vehicles.

When autonomous vehicles are outlawed only outlaws will drive autonomous vehicles.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

As someone who moved across the country recently, driving, it wouldn’t be as simple as that.

Even if I had been able to pack all my stuff into a self-driving U-Haul truck, I would have still needed to be in the truck, if for no other reason than because it would eventually need to stop for gas, and an autonomous car can’t do that for itself.

Rekrul says:

Re: Re:

ou know why they are saying this now, right? In parallel, they must be lobbying Congress for some new law that gives them UNFETTERED REMOTE ACCESS to these cars to uh…”stop them in case something goes wrong” – or you know, create more Michael Hayden “accidents”.

Exactly. There’s no way those in power are going to allow autonomous cars on the road without some sort of remote kill switch.

GEMont (profile) says:

Dumbest "fear" of the year!

Ummm…. the obvious seems to leap right off the page.

Autonomous cars would have to be outfitted with some sort of localized computer tracking and control network, if for not other reason than to be able to redirect a car that is experiencing mechanical/technical difficulties, to safely remove it from traffic and get it to a repair unit.

So…. bad guy gets into autonomous car and lets car drive while he uses both hands to shoot at pursuing police, and the car simply drives him to the nearest police HQ, parks itself in the middle of the parking lot and turns itself off after opening all the doors.

I think too many cops are watching too many Disney animated Car-Toons.

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