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Security robot walking on the street

Knightscope’s security robots look cute. But these cone-headed automatons, which serve U.S. police departments and businesses, are serious surveillance machines.

What happened: Newly released documents including contracts, emails, and a company slideshow highlight Knightscope’s ability to gather information and track people. Medium’s OneZero tech website obtained the documents through a public records request and reported on their contents.

How it works: The Southern California community of Huntington Park in November 2018 agreed to pay $240,000 to lease a Knightscope unit for three years. The 300-pound K5 patrol robot, which trundles on three wheels, senses its surroundings using optical cameras, lidar, and thermal imaging:

  • The robot scans passersby using face recognition software and cars using a license plate reader. It compares captured images with police databases detailing persons of interest, flags matches, and sends alerts to law enforcement personnel.
  • Remote users can monitor the robot’s cameras in real time and direct it to take actions such as issuing parking violations.
  • The robot passively collects signals from nearby wireless devices. The slideshow describes how such records can be used to track individuals using a device’s MAC address.
  • The robot saves data it collects for two weeks, during which time police can access it through an app or download it for their own use.

Behind the news: Huntington Park’s police department is one of three in the U.S. currently using Knightscope’s robots. An unknown but rising number of private companies, including operators of shopping malls or large parking plazas, have leased the robots as well.

Why it matters: Knightscope’s data-collection and -analysis features could violate privacy restrictions and laws in some cities and states. Privacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation argue that face recognition and license plate readers violate individuals’ civil rights, and wireless sniffing could raise similar questions. Face recognition technology is illegal in San Francisco, Oakland, and Somerville, MA. A number of other cities have cancelled programs to procure automated license plate readers.

We’re thinking: Automated security can save municipalities and businesses a lot of money. But we all could pay a price in civil liberties if we’re not careful about how the technology is deployed. Citizens should demand transparency from local governments about where surveillance equipment is situated and how captured data can be used and stored.


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