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From shared mobility to snitches, or how the San Francisco police are turning self-driving cars into surveillance cameras

All manufacturers and companies involved in the development of the autonomous car they see in this technology the way to reach a future without traffic accidents. But to be able to move freely and safely in traffic, these cars are full of sensors, radars, lidar and, of course, cameras.

But those cameras can also be roving surveillance cameras for the police. They are a witness, mute, impartial and very discreet, because nobody pays attention to it. It is not something theoretical. In San Francisco it is something concrete, where the local police themselves have already used them.

“Autonomous vehicles are continually recording their surroundings and have the potential to help with investigative leads,” says a San Francisco Police Department training document obtained by Motherboard and reported on. echoes Vice. The San Francisco police “have already done it on several occasions.”

A self-driving car camera as a surveillance camera

Autonomous Chevy Bolt Cruise

The document in question is a three-page guide on how agents should interact with autonomous vehiclesespecially those that do not have a driver on board who can take control.

It describes basic procedures such as how to interact with autonomous cars, because yes, sometimes the police can stop them and the cars have a protocol on how to act.

But there is also a section titled “Investigations” in which agents are reminded of the usefulness of autonomous cars when collecting images.

Waymo Jaguar i-Pace

For individual privacy advocates, the fact that the police are using the video recordings of those cars is cause for alarm. “While companies continue to make public roads their testing ground for these vehicles, everyone should understand them for what they are: rolling surveillance devices that extend existing espionage technologies and widespread,” said Chris Gilliard, a visiting scholar at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School.

You can understand the alarm it may cause in those who rightly defend the right to privacy or the right of image. However, the cameras in self-driving cars are no different from the video surveillance cameras that may be found at the entrances of stores or homes in the United States. Self-driving car companies do not share images without a court order.

Cruise General Motors Chevy Bolt

A) Yes, Waymoproperty of Alphabet (Google), for example, does not share the images with the forces of order without a judicial order that asks for it, assures a person in charge of the company. Cruise, owned by General Motorsfor its part, ensures that they share the “images and other information when we receive a court order or a valid subpoena, and we can voluntarily share information if public safety is in danger.”

Could something similar happen in Spain?

mercedes autonomous car

Are the situations and the US legal framework comparable to the Spanish one? In principle, everything indicates that it would be possible, although we are in an alegal situation in which everything is possible.

Spain does not have a specific law for autonomous cars. In fact, the DGT considers that it is better to leave it “for circuits or closed routes”. On the other hand, there is a timid mention of autonomous driving systems, which basically makes legal use on public roads of the systems level 3 autonomous drivinglike that of Mercedes S-Class, but it is not very specific in many respects. In fact, it glosses over the issue of cameras in self-driving cars.

Autonomous Citroën Picasso

In the absence of a specific rule, the Organic Law 3/2018, of December 5, on the Protection of Personal Data and guarantee of digital rights, o LPOD. This law regulates, among other aspects, the installation and use of surveillance cameras, as well as the use of recorded images.

The installation of surveillance cameras is highly regulated. For example, it is necessary to install an information poster indicating where you can exercise the rights over the image and data of the person being recorded (in a store, in a public hall), recordings cannot be kept for more than 30 days. And of course can’t focus or record public road.

Audi A8 autonomous driving

Only the State Security Corps and Forces can record images on public roads. But the LOPD also provides that yes, images of public roads can be captured to the extent that it is necessary to ensure safetyas long as it does not involve capturing images of the interior of a private home.

The public road can be recorded if it is essential to guarantee safety. And what greater safety reason is there than for a self-driving car to be able to navigate the flow of traffic without crashing or being run over.

Autonomous Citroën Picasso

And although these cameras are not used directly or only for driving, it is also a safety issue that the developer of the car can verify afterwards what has caused the car to fail at a certain moment. It is a safety issue for the rest of the users of the public road, for private and public property.

It would therefore be lawful for the car to record the road and its surroundings. And in case of receiving a court order to access those images, they would have to be given to the police. However, there is a loopholebecause the cameras of the few autonomous cars that circulate or have circulated in Spain they are not expressly surveillance cameras.

Not being surveillance cameras, the company can keep those images beyond 30 days that the law allows. In the same way, You don’t have to report that there are cameras in that car and that they are making a 360º recording of the street.

So, where to exercise image and data rights? And who is responsible? Too many unanswered questions due to the absence of a legislative framework and to which sooner or later the legislator will have to answer.

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I started to play with tech since middle school. Smart phones, laptops and gadgets are all about my life. Besides, I am also a big fan of Star War. May the force be with you!

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