Self-Driving Cars Are Surveillance Cameras on Wheels

Police are already using self-driving car footage as video evidence:

While security cameras are commonplace in American cities, self-driving cars represent a new level of access for law enforcement ­ and a new method for encroachment on privacy, advocates say. Crisscrossing the city on their routes, self-driving cars capture a wider swath of footage. And it’s easier for law enforcement to turn to one company with a large repository of videos and a dedicated response team than to reach out to all the businesses in a neighborhood with security systems.

“We’ve known for a long time that they are essentially surveillance cameras on wheels,” said Chris Gilliard, a fellow at the Social Science Research Council. “We’re supposed to be able to go about our business in our day-to-day lives without being surveilled unless we are suspected of a crime, and each little bit of this technology strips away that ability.”


While self-driving services like Waymo and Cruise have yet to achieve the same level of market penetration as Ring, the wide range of video they capture while completing their routes presents other opportunities. In addition to the San Francisco homicide, Bloomberg’s review of court documents shows police have sought footage from Waymo and Cruise to help solve hit-and-runs, burglaries, aggravated assaults, a fatal collision and an attempted kidnapping.

In all cases reviewed by Bloomberg, court records show that police collected footage from Cruise and Waymo shortly after obtaining a warrant. In several cases, Bloomberg could not determine whether the recordings had been used in the resulting prosecutions; in a few of the cases, law enforcement and attorneys said the footage had not played a part, or was only a formality. However, video evidence has become a lynchpin of criminal cases, meaning it’s likely only a matter of time.

Posted on July 3, 2023 at 7:04 AM16 Comments


Peter A. July 3, 2023 9:14 AM

The primary question is why the cars store the footage or any other sensor data that was intended for a wholly different purpose, namely driving the car. Past sensor inputs are useless for the task at hand – but very “useful” for the company that makes them.

Would you be fine with your non-self-driving car, or your lawn mower, or your fridge, or your toaster etc. etc. stored all sensor data with their timing for all government agencies to conveniently retrieve at whim? Beware, that includes your neighbor’s lawn mower.

Winter July 3, 2023 9:55 AM

@Peter A.

The primary question is why the cars store the footage or any other sensor data

The same reason drivers, eg, Russians, preserve dash-cam recordings [1]. To proof who was responsible for an accident or other mishap. But for that aim, the data does not have to leave the possession of the owner.

Obviously, they also want the stuff to (re-)train their self-driving algorithms.

[1] ‘

More fun:

Users watching these [dash-cam] compilations are often pretty shocked. “In Russia the majority of drivers drive as if they’re immortal,” “Russian dashcam videos are better than Hollywood,” – these are quite typical comments under Russian car DVR videos on the Internet. People tend to compare the world of Russian roads with videogames, especially concerning recorded fights between drivers. “Russia is like real life Grand Theft Auto!” Jon Stewart, the ex-host of American The Daily Show shouted while commenting on a video of two men confronting each other with a baseball bat and a hatchet.

Peter A. July 3, 2023 10:43 AM

@Winter: “for that aim, the data does not have to leave the possession of the owner”

You’re spot on, that’s the key point. One can choose to store or not to store, what to store, for how long, when to reveal the stored data and to whom.

It’s the difference between you sometimes taking a note or a photo, or recording a part of your life (sometimes inevitably including parts of other’s lives), and being able to safeguard or destroy it (to some degree) – and someone else (virtually) following you all the time taking notes, photographing and filming you, often surreptitiously, or by breaking your trust[1], and then giving it out to anybody, including any branch of the government.

I understand proactively taking evidence to help you win a potential case in an ineffective and/or corrupt system, such as not only Russians recording their drives (I feel sorry for them on that aspect). Same goes for home surveillance systems that one may install voluntarily if one thinks it would make their home more secure. Same for (consciously) recording or sharing your GNSS location. Etc., etc.

[1] such as asking for “diagnostic” data to be used “anonymously” for some good purpose like “improving service” for you – and then selling it or snitching on you

Jon July 3, 2023 1:03 PM

or was only a formality.

We’re talking evidence that could exonerate or convict someone, and it’s “only a formality”? WHAT??


Clive Robinson July 3, 2023 1:41 PM

@ ALL,

Please remember that these videos are actually “third party business records” of the vehical owner not the temporary driver. So the police do not actually require a warrant to access them just a request letter…

Hence the,

“in a few of the cases, law enforcement and attorneys said the footage had not played a part, or was only a formality.”

Realy means it’s become “Standard Operating Procedure”(SOP) to ‘get ‘en whilst they’re hot” just in case…

So if when “scrubbing the footage” investigators see other actionable crimes etc that can be just a bonus, or be saved for later leverage etc…

But in many places where they are “third party records” so no warrant required… if the recordings contain “audio” from inside the vehicle then the autgorities may need a “wire-tap level warrant”. Something Defence Attorneys should remember, because if they can show there was sound recorded at the same time, then the videos might become inadmissable…

It would be interesting to find out if videos where there was no sound recorded but it’s possible to “lip read” if that puts it under “wire-tap” rules or not…

Aaron July 3, 2023 5:25 PM

What’s the difference between a private citizen and a corporation giving surveillance footage to law enforcement?

A private citizen has a moral conscience
A corporation has monetary motivations

anon July 4, 2023 5:43 AM

What about the USPS? Their mail trucks drive past every house in the US every day.

iAPX July 4, 2023 5:47 AM

Shooting (photos!) or filming in public place is granted on many first-world countries and protected by the law, but many things changed since I learned to use a 35mm semi-automatic camera in 1980.

Decision: when, what to frame and why
I was the one deciding what I frame, how I expose, what the purpose of the take, but now with cameras on cars (and home), there is no more conscious decision, there are many ways to trigger them and in some case they are always on.

Who has authority and control over these cameras
I have to press the button, I was the only one that could do it when handling the camera, and owned the film and resulting pictures.
Now many of these in car or home cameras could be controlled by the companies that sell it, remotely, and the footage might not be yours…

Transmission: automated or remotely available
While it was complicated to send pictures or movies, using snail mail, now they might be stored centrally in the cloud or accessed through your own Internet access by an actore, wether it’s the company that sell the camera, the one that wrote the firmware or officials. At any time.

Ability for officials to search for the presences and/or footages
Nobody knew what I photographed until the film was processed, and there are few ways my camera company, film company or gov officials would know what I did, except for the technician checking the development process.
Now companies have this information, often in real time, so they know what have been grabbed in public places, precisely where and when, and this information could be used by gov officials to identify which footages to ask for.

There are still lenses, but everything else changed, and now there is for me, as a long-time photographer, a problem of right to privacy and anonymity in public places as the tools available are frightening is misused.

Someone privately capturing consciously a picture for itself vs. automated capture of the public environment available for companies and gov officials.

Roger A. Grimes July 4, 2023 6:23 PM

I’d love to know how many Telsa videos have been requested by police. My brother’s Tesla has evidenced 3 crimes by itself (i.e., parking lot accidents). I wonder what the numbers are in aggregate?

Peter July 5, 2023 5:29 AM

I have always said that Putin could just conquer Europe buy sending a few 1000 of those drivers into Europe.
Chaos and mayhem will be the result 🙂
And we will gladly surrender us.

Steve July 18, 2023 11:34 AM

Here’s a thought: do any of these self-driving vehicles leak data through side-channels. I.E.: can you point a security camera at the headlights/taillights and detect any data? Like with the leakage from power led’s of SD Card readers?

Adrian Midgley August 4, 2023 2:37 PM

A reason for a vehicle with some automation of driving to retain something from footage could be that many or most drives are repetitive, or have sections which the same driver will traverse repeatedly, in day, night, rain, fog, roadworks etc.

When we drive manually we find it easier to traverse a route we remember – we are more interested in changes than the unchanged.

I don’t know if they use it thus, and I expect be that abstracting the memories, eliminating the pedestrians etc would make it more useful.

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