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Delivery robot privacy concerns mount after footage supplied to authorities

Engineers are scratching heads over vandalism of food delivery robots
Engineers are scratching heads over vandalism of food delivery robots

California has mostly accepted automated vehicles into its road system, and robot delivery services come with that. Uber Eats and Bolt have deployed robot deliveries that operate in some geographic regions, but questions about privacy are mounting following an incident in Los Angeles. 

Serve Robotics, which provides delivery robots to Uber Eats, shared video footage with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to aid a criminal investigation.

The case involved an attempted theft of a Serve robot, prompting the LAPD to issue a subpoena, demanding video footage related to the incident. Serve Robotics complied, providing the footage, which helped law enforcement identify the culprits behind the attempted theft.

Big Brother?

Serve Robotics offered to help with an investigation that included its delivery robot. In this case, providing footage to the authorities was correct. However it raises significant questions about the future use of such devices in criminal investigations. 

Surveillance experts and privacy advocates have expressed concerns about these autonomous vehicles potentially transforming into mobile surveillance devices. Serve’s robots, in particular, continually record their surroundings and upload the footage to a server. The duration for which this data is retained is unclear.

Chris Gilliard, a surveillance and privacy expert, points out the absence of specific policies governing these situations in an interview with tech journalist Jason Koebler. He says, “Absent some very specific policies, I think we can fully expect they [companies like Serve Robotics] will continue to share footage with the police. I wonder what would happen if the police came to them and made specific requests about surveillance in a particular area?”

“Would they turn that down? I think these companies need to anticipate these issues and get ahead of them. I highly doubt they have a policy addressing that. I can easily envision that, and I didn’t put the product out. It’s not hyperbolic or farfetched, it’s a thing that’s very likely to happen when police want intelligence as these things proliferate,” he concludes.

According to Gizmodo, Meredith Whittaker, president of encrypted privacy messenger Signal, reinforced the notion that AI technology inherently involves surveillance. Autonomous products, reliant on perpetual data collection for self-improvement, are prime targets for law enforcement to gather data.

Robot vandalism isn’t new

Companies like Starship and Serve Robotics are grappling with the impact of vandalism on their businesses.

In response to rising incidents, Starship has implemented stricter measures. Their robots are now equipped to maneuver around obstacles, triggering alarms if situations escalate. Cameras installed on the robots serve dual purposes: protecting the robots and identifying offenders. 

The vandalism not only harms the robots but also affects businesses. Restaurants and grocery stores must replace damaged orders, leading to financial losses. The question of deterrence arises, with some suggesting hefty fines as a solution. However, debates persist about the effectiveness of laws related to public violence and property damage.

As autonomous food delivery rapidly expands, privacy and surveillance concerns are set to intensify. 

About the author

Marce has contributed tech to various prominent publications since 2018, offering a transparent perspective into the tech industry and its effects on its users. She now spends her time developing insightful content for industry players. You know, when she's not gaming or geeking out about the latest fad.

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