Food Delivery Robots Are Spying for Police While on the Job: Report

Food delivery robot

Customers who order food delivered by robots in Los Angeles may be inadvertently helping police perform surveillance on the city’s residents.

404 Media reports that Serve Robotics, the company behind Uber Eats robot deliveries, has provided footage recorded by at least one of its delivery robots to the LAPD as evidence in a criminal investigation.

While Serve Robotics delivering video evidence from a single Uber Eats delivery does not represent a widespread surveillance network, 404 Media’s reporting indicates that the delivery robots are always filming, and it is unclear what happens to that footage following a delivery.

Perhaps of more importance to the residents of Los Angeles is that 404 Media has learned that Serve Robotics wants to work more with the LAPD, who, unsurprisingly, were excited by the opportunity to have additional “eyes” on the city.

“The specific incident in question was a grand larceny case where two men tried (and failed) to steal a robot owned and operated by Serve Robotics, which ultimately wants to deploy ‘up to 2,000 robots’ to deliver food for Uber Eats in Los Angeles. The suspects were arrested and convicted,” writes 404 Media.

Serve’s robots are autonomous, although often controlled or at least monitored, by human operators.

While Serve Robotics appears to have shown interest in working with the LAPD on a larger scale, per internal emails, the company was the victim in the incident in which it turned footage recorded by one of its robots over to law enforcement.

Serve’s head of communications, Aduke Thelwell, who has been in contact with the LAPD, says that the company’s policy is to routinely delete video captured by robots during their delivery work. However, the company will not do so if “compelling safety or security concerns” exist. The company’s privacy policy also outlines that it will share information with law enforcement officials, government authorities, or third parties if it believes that doing so is necessary to protect the rights, property, or safety of Serve Robotics, its customers, or the public at large.

Serve Robotics published a blog post earlier this week in which the company discusses the specific instance in which it was the victim of an attempted bot-napping and provided information to the police.

“As our robots have rolled throughout Los Angeles and West Hollywood, we’ve found ourselves grappling with new questions. Should the police be informed if a robot is vandalized? What about when an attempt is made to steal a robot?” writes Serve.

The company continues, adding that its principles are to “put people first, foster trust, don’t strain public resources, and make cities safer.”

Concerning “fostering trust,” Serve writes, “This principle also means not using robots for surveillance or other purposes that violate the public’s sense of privacy, and upholding strict data policies that do not undermine privacy.”

The company also says that it does not involve the police in every instance of robot vandalism, noting that in some cases, “engaging law enforcement becomes both necessary and valuable to the communities we serve.”

What about making cities safer? Serve says it already does so by keeping more cars off the road. However, safety concerns run deeper than that. The company shares sidewalk data for public use, including noting areas that are not accessible to wheelchairs, strollers, or bicycles. As for providing information to police, Serve says that it only does so when there are “violent incidents or serious criminal conduct that may put public safety at risk (e.g., organized crime, use of weapons, etc.).”

Police have parroted similar attitudes toward improving public safety and wound up participating in racial profiling and dedicating disproportionately high police presence to areas that are primarily inhabited by racial minorities. Leaving what constitutes “serious criminal conduct that may put public safety at risk” to the company that owns food delivery robots may pose problems, especially when those same robots record everything they see.

“Our goal at Serve is not just to build the most capable robots, but also to make our communities better. From public outreach to working closely with city officials, we collect feedback and continually refine our principles and approach as we learn. Our hope is that together, with increased transparency and collaboration, we can advance the use of robotics in our society, helping create a more sustainable, affordable, and convenient world,” concludes Serve Robotics in its recent blog post.

“The problem is that neither [Serve’s CEO] Kashani, nor Thelwell, nor the company’s privacy policy actually explain how long it keeps video for, what its surveillance policies are, or how it intends to uphold these policies in the face of, say, a police subpoena. Its privacy policy, notably, is focused on the privacy of its indirect customers who are ordering food, not about the privacy of the broader Los Angeles community that it is constantly filming in order to deliver food for Uber. Uber did not respond to a request for comment,” writes 404 Media.

As the independent journalism website notes, Serve’s recent blog post does not say that Serve provided footage directly to the police. The open letter of sorts talks about the bot-napping attempt, and that the company communicated with the police, but Serve never outright says that it took footage recorded by one of its robots and provided it to law enforcement.

“I think we can fully expect [Serve] to continue to share footage with the police,” says Chris Gilliard, surveillance justice expert and Just Tech fellow at the MacArthur Foundation. “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?” Gilliard asks.

In timely reporting, 404 Media also writes about a study that outlines how most computer vision technology is ultimately used to surveil people. As more autonomous vehicles get on public roadways, that means more cameras. More cameras means more surveillance.

“They’re just surveillance wagons,” Gilliard says of autonomous vehicles. “I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but I think it’s very dangerous.”

Thanks to public records requests, 404 Media has determined that Serve has spoken to police about issues well beyond the one incident the company says it has reported to the LAPD. It seems like Serve was in communication with law enforcement officials before the incident Serve detailed in its blog post.

Many emails show correspondence between Serve and the LAPD, including suggestions that Serve is keen to work with law enforcement. “We will continue to work in partnership,” reads an internal email between LAPD officers about their relationship with Serve.

404 Media’s Jason Koebler, the journalist behind the story, summarizes the most concerning aspects of the situation on X, formerly Twitter.

404 Media is an independent media company that is providing the story about Serve Robotics and the LAPD to the public for free because it is “a public service.” The bombshell report includes many more public records, which is a costly and time-intensive way to investigate a story. 404 Media is funded by its readers.

Image credit: Serve Robotics