San Francisco Cops Are Accessing Autonomous Vehicle Recordings To Collect Evidence

from the another-source-of-always-on-surveillance dept

This report, by Aaron Gordon for Motherboard, looks like a hypothetical dreamed up by a particularly cruel constitutional law professor:

For the last five years, driverless car companies have been testing their vehicles on public roads. These vehicles constantly roam neighborhoods while laden with a variety of sensors including video cameras capturing everything going on around them in order to operate safely and analyze instances where they don’t. 

While the companies themselves, such as Alphabet’s Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise, tout the potential transportation benefits their services may one day offer, they don’t publicize another use case, one that is far less hypothetical: Mobile surveillance cameras for police departments.

It’s not quite as cut-and-dried as that last sentence. As far as we know, police departments do not have unfettered, real-time access to the recordings created constantly by autonomous vehicles. But they do have access to the recordings. That much is clear from the public records obtained by Motherboard.

The San Francisco PD has been using this footage to aid in investigations, apparently frequently. The training document says two things, neither of which address the particularly thorny constitutional questions they raise:

Autonomous vehicles are recording their surroundings continuously and have the potential to help with investigative leads.

There’s nothing untrue about this assertion and yet it says nothing about the processes used to obtain these recordings. That might have been a hypothetical if not for the following bullet point:

Information will be sent in how to access this potential evidence (Investigations has already done this several times)


That is problematic, as an EFF rep points out:

“This is very concerning,” Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) senior staff attorney Adam Schwartz told Motherboard. He said cars in general are troves of personal consumer data, but autonomous vehicles will have even more of that data from capturing the details of the world around them. “So when we see any police department identify AVs as a new source of evidence, that’s very concerning.”

So many questions.

An AV will not have a human driver, which lowers the expectation of privacy. That expectation reverts to the company deploying it, which makes it somewhat comparable to a third-party record: data obtained by an automatic process that belongs to the company deploying the data-gathering device (in this case, a car).

Since there’s no driver to challenge searches, the responsibility lies with the company deploying the vehicle. And, since the recordings presumably cover public areas where the privacy expectation is further lowered, it might be possible to obtain recordings with nothing more than a subpoena (or a friendly sounding email!)

That’s where things get even thornier, in terms of the Fourth Amendment. The document does not describe the process the SFPD investigations team uses to obtain recordings.

First of all, how does the SFPD even know if AV recordings might be useful in ongoing investigations? Presumably, AV operators are required to inform local government agencies of their plans so that they can be overseen and undertaken safely. If cops know the routes traveled, it makes sense they would pursue footage recorded at or around areas where suspected crimes were committed.

But who governs this access? Has the city enacted any limits? Or is it just assumed that anything traffic regulators have access to should be accessible to law enforcement?

Moving on from there, how does the PD approach these companies? Private searches (which may be how these recordings are viewed by courts) are legal provided law enforcement does nothing to encourage searches companies (or their employees) may not otherwise engage in. Can cops request AV companies run routes through “high crime” areas in hopes of collecting footage of crimes in progress? All judicial signs point to “no,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

AV testing is AV testing. It really doesn’t matter much where it’s happening, so some companies may engage in test runs in neighborhoods investigators think might provide more evidence or intel. If this is happening, that’s a real problem.

Unfortunately, we only know what the SFPD has released so far: a training document that says AV cars capture footage and that investigators have utilized that footage in the past. Future public records requests may shed more light on the matter, but for now, this is all we have. At some point, evidence gathered by autonomous vehicles may be challenged in court. If and when that happens, we may get even more answers. But it seems like this isn’t a problem capable of being quantified with this minimum amount of information. That doesn’t mean it should be ignored. It just means more data is needed to draw any solid conclusions.

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Comments on “San Francisco Cops Are Accessing Autonomous Vehicle Recordings To Collect Evidence”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Why budget to cover the whole town in cameras when we can just tap into these cars??

Then we don’t have to explain how filming 24/7 isn’t infringing on anyones rights and it will just be another database that we can make rules about how & why they can be accessed that will be followed like all of those other databases where cops have stalked ex’s, hit on cute girls, and 100 other uses that should get people fired.

The companies holding the data are immune to FOIA requests so any ‘guidelines’ they decide to use (that we totally didn’t write out for them on a post it that said burn after reading) so if they just happen to have the things we need arranged in the most useful way its all happenstance.

Of course they will love this up until the videos show cops violating the law & citizens rights & they can’t control the footage anymore.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:


Cops mostly.
Thats why they play copyrighted music & violate citizens rights to avoid having what they are doing seen by others.

Also its not just merely about ZOMG I was filmed in public, I was filmed in public 2 yrs ago & because I was near an area of a crime I am now having my cell phone data and others things pulled when the only think “connecting” me to the crime is a camera saw me in the area. Didn’t see me with a gun, didn’t see me bloody but I was there so my life should be turned upside down by cops.

Then there are the fun misuses that always happen when there is any trove of data LEO’s have access to.
Gee Council Member Smith how would people react to this photo that makes it look like you were leaving a strip club…

Anonymous Coward says:


It’s the same as reverse warrants. Thousands of people lazily considered “suspects” until the cops get up an do the works they should have done in the first place. Following leads and narrowing the field before pulling data from uninvolved private parties with no warrant and probably not even a subpeona is the sensible and proper method.

Chris Brand says:

Chain of custody?

So is there ever any expectation that any of this kind of footage ends up in court? And if so, how do they prove that what gets shown in court was actually what was recorded at the time? I’m picturing footage captured by an AV, sent to a server at the company somewhere, probably archived, then sent to friendly PD – multiple opportunities for footage to get corrupted or tampered with…

Same thing of course for a all those Ring doorbells and for a lot of modern CCTV systems.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The fact that they’re owned privately rather than by the government makes them legally more permissible. The government has to be abide by the Bill of Rights, which is inapplicable to private individuals and organizations.

The 4th Amendment may require the government to get a warrant to compile data on you. A private company is under no such obligation.

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