As Google, Tesla, Volvo, and other companies make great strides with their self-driving car technology, we’ve started moving past questions about whether the technology will work, and started digging into the ethics of how it should work. For example, we recently discussedwhether or not cars should be programmed to sacrifice their own driver if it means saving the lives of countless others (like a number of children on a school bus). Programmers are also battling with how to program vehicles to obey all rules — yet still account for highway safety’s biggest threat: shitty human drivers.
But another key question recently raised its head in discussing what this brave new self-driving world will look like. Just how much power should law enforcement have over your self-driving vehicle? Should law enforcement be able to stop a self-driving vehicle if you refuse to? That was a question buried recently in this otherwise routine RAND report (pdf) which posits a number of theoretical situations in which law enforcement might find the need for some kind of automobile kill switch:
“The police officer directing traffic in the intersection could see the car barreling toward him and the occupant looking down at his smartphone. Officer Rodriguez gestured for the car to stop, and the self-driving vehicle rolled to a halt behind the crosswalk.
Commissioned by the National Institute of Justice, the RAND report is filled with benign theoreticals like this, and while it briefly discusses some of the obvious problems created by giving law enforcement (and by proxy intelligence agencies) this type of power over vehicle systems and data, it doesn’t offer many solutions. As parts of the report make clear, having immediate access to driver and vehicle history and data is an incredibly sexy concept for law enforcement:
“Imagine a law enforcement officer interacting with a vehicle that has sensors connected to the Internet. With the appropriate judicial clearances, an officer could ask the vehicle to identify its occupants and location histories. … Or, if the vehicle is unmanned but capable of autonomous movement and in an undesirable location (for example, parked illegally or in the immediate vicinity of an emergency), an officer could direct the vehicle to move to a new location (with the vehicle’s intelligent agents recognizing “officer” and “directions to move”) and automatically notify its owner and occupants.”
Yes, because if the history of intelligence and law enforcement is any indication, the “appropriate judicial clearances” are of the utmost importance. Thanks to what will inevitably be a push for backdoors to this data, we’ll obviously be creating entirely new delicious targets for hackers — who’ve already been poking holes in the paper mache grade security currently “protecting” current vehicle electronics. The report does briefly acknowledge this “risk to the public’s civil rights, privacy rights, and security,” but as we’ve seen time and time again, these concerns are a footnote in the expansion of surveillance authority.
We already live in an age where the consumer doesn’t have the ability to control or modify their own vehicle’s electronics courtesy of DRM and copyright, and self-driving cars are already going to be a tough sell for many people from a liberty and personal freedom perspective. Adding the ability for law enforcement to not only snoop on vehicle data but take direct control of your vehicle — is a conversation we should start having sooner rather than later.