“An Autonomous Car Is A Moving Panopticon”

The Quartz “Daily Brief” newsletter referred me to “Cars and Second Order Consequences,” a smart Benedict Evans post that tries to anticipate changes beyond the obvious that will be wrought by EVs and driverless. There’s plenty of good stuff on the fate of gas stations, mass transportation and city living when on-demand rides become the new normal.

What really caught my eye, though, was the final idea in the piece, in which Evans imagines how these rolling computers with unblinking vision will change policing. He focuses only on how it will be a boon for law enforcement, but this non-stop surveillance, a totalitarian dream, can easily be abused by governments, corporations and hackers. Let’s recall that a panopticon is a prison building designed to allow all inmates to be observed at all times. There’s no opting out.

An excerpt:

Finally, remember the cameras. Pretty much every vision of automatic cars involves them using HD, 360 degree computer vision. That means that every AV will be watching everything that goes on around it – even the things that are not related to driving. An autonomous car is a moving panopticon. They might not be saving and uploading every part of that data. But they could be. 

By implication, in 2030 or so, police investigating a crime won’t just get copies of the CCTV from surrounding properties, but get copies of the sensor data from every car that happened to be passing, and then run facial recognition scans against known offenders. Or, perhaps, just ask if any car in the area thought it saw something suspicious.•