Technologists have long speculated on the privacy implications of largely ungoverned, camera-enabled vehicle fleets roaming the roads of America. Now we’ve finally bumped up against the tip of that particularly worrying iceberg.
With the help of a judge-signed search warrant, police in Chandler, Arizona, obtained footage from one of Google’s Waymo-branded autonomous vehicles in the course of investigating the hit-and-run of a cyclist.
Footage from these types of vehicles has, of course, become evidence when self-driving cars are involved in crashes and other accidents—the highest profile example being the autonomous Uber SUV which struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in March of 2018. Footage from both inside and outside the vehicle later formed part of the case that somehow exonerated Uber from criminal liability.
A Waymo vehicle, however, was not responsible for maiming a 32-year-old biker, which makes this, to the best of our knowledge, one of the first instances of self-driving vehicle footage being obtained by police in a crime in which the autonomous vehicle was not involved. In this instance, it did nothing to assist in catching whoever injured the cyclist: “Waymo’s footage was not clear enough to reveal any of the hit-run car’s identifying markers,” the East Valley Tribune reports.
Police suspected a Waymo car was passing by the vehicle responsible at Ray Road, according to the Tribune. (No cross street was specified, though at minimum Ray Road is approximately half a mile from the site of the incident.) It’s unclear if police were merely wrong in this assumption—which calls to mind the alarming and sometimes indiscriminate police use of location data requests—or if the failure was on the part of Waymo’s cameras, itself a worrying proposition as those same cameras presumably form part of its arsenal against operating in a dangerous manner. Google has not responded to a request for comment.
At present, the contiguous Chandler and Tempe are some of the few places these sorts of vehicles are greenlit for operations on public roads. With greater ubiquity, it’s hard to imagine law enforcement wouldn’t leverage a fleet of roving surveillance cameras.