Cops in US are turning to Waymo, Cruise to source video footage and solve crimes

The cars are always recording data and footage requested legally with a warrant. But what about the privacy of individuals?
Ameya Paleja
A Waymo vehicle on a street in Silicon Valley
A Waymo vehicle on a street in Silicon Valley

Sundry Photography 

Cops in the US have been approaching makers of self-driving fleets such as Waymo and Cruise to source video footage from their vehicles to solve crimes. In a recent report, Bloomberg counted multiple instances when video footage from these vehicles has helped nail suspects and forgive them.

For years, police have relied on closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras to monitor the movement of people around crime scenes and help identify suspects. As the number of self-driving cars is on the rise, so is the number of cameras on the roads that could capture the moments leading up to a crime.

Self-driving cars are equipped with sensors and cameras that help them navigate the streets and store this data for long durations to help improve their capabilities. Police departments are now increasingly aware that video footage from these vehicles can be mighty helpful and are making requests to manufacturers such as Waymo and Cruise.

Offering clues to solve crimes

In December 2021, an Uber driver, Ahmed Yusufi, was killed between shifts. While looking for clues to solve the crime, the San Francisco police found that a fleet of Waymo vehicles happened to drive by a gray Dodge Charger, which they suspected their shooter to be going.

The police approached Waymo, an Alphabet Inc. company, with a court-approved warrant for hours of footage captured by the vehicles, and the company complied. With an increasing number of cars in their fleets, self-driving or robotaxi companies are more of a centralized repository of video footage that police can contact instead of various providers of CCTV systems in a neighborhood.

Both Waymo and Cruise told Bloomberg that they provide as little data as possible in response to such requests, but in the vast amounts of footage these companies collect, even a tiny drop is quite a bit.

Concerns of privacy invasion

Cops in US are turning to Waymo, Cruise to source video footage and solve crimes
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Privacy advocates are worried about the growing number of tools that are now available to police nowadays. While self-driving cars are available in a limited number of cities, video doorbells such as one from Amazon company Ring have deeper market penetration while voluntarily uploading their footage to apps like Neighbors. Amazon has previously accepted that in "emergencies", it has shared footage from these devices without the owner's permission.

With no measures to protect consumer privacy, tech companies in the US have been amassing vast amounts of data from their customers and now the police have begun tapping into them to enable enforce law and order.

Waymo said that it fogs the footage to protect bystanders in an incident but for burglaries, the police request "accurate depiction," leaving individual privacy by the wayside.

Footage requests don't need to help, either. In the case of Yusufi's murder, the surveillance from Waymo vehicles did not help since they did not contain the Dodge Charger.

However, it is not just police requests that are the problem here. In April, Interesting Engineering reported how Tesla employees were sharing private recordings of car owners with unauthorized personnel unauthorized an internal chat application.

The US desperately needs to draw the line on individual privacy in such a connected environment before it gets too late.

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