Here’s How Knightscope’s Security Robots Surveil the Public

OneZero obtained a presentation that reveals how Knightscope uses facial recognition and license plate readers to track individuals

Left: Surveillance footage captured by a Knightscope robot. Right: Knightscope robot.

KKnightscope, the company behind the robot that famously killed itself by falling into a Washington, D.C. office center pond, sells robots to automate surveillance. Since 2015, the company has rented out its security robots to police and private institutions like hospitals and casinos.

These robots, which range from stationary kiosks to roving bulbous obelisks on wheels, collect immense amounts of data using tools such as facial recognition, automatic license plate readers, and wireless device detection. OneZero has obtained a previously unreported Knightscope presentation that shows just how much data Knightscope robots can collect.

The slides—presented in full at the bottom of this piece—were presented to the city council of Huntington Park, CA, in June 2019. The city signed a $240,000 contract to lease a Knightscope robot for three years in November 2018, according to documents obtained through a public records request. Emails from the Huntington Park police department detail the minutiae of employing Knightscope robot, like an extra $1,000 to $2,000 charge to transport the robot to and from a city council meeting, as well as measuring elevators to ensure that the robot could fit through the doors. Huntington Park is one of three police agencies who have contracts with Knightscope, according to the Knightscope website, alongside Hayward, CA, and the on-campus police of North Central Texas College.

The slides also detail the software used by police to control the Knightscope robot, and how the company analyzes the collected data. Knightscope did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Slides from a Knightscope presentation made to Huntington Park, CA, city council. June 2019.

One presentation slide features the company’s facial recognition capabilities, indicating that the company can surface a known person’s name, the similarity of the person’s face compared to a known image, and a log of other identities that the robot has seen. People flagged as a “person of interest” have notes attached to their identities such as “Causes Trouble” and “Sketchy dude,” which were entered by Knightscope and not indicative of how police use the labeling feature. The program’s interface also allows to accept or deny whether the match was accurate, presumably a way to further train the software for the future.

In the presentation, Knightscope indicates that the facial recognition feature can be used to monitor individuals in cases of hostile terminations, domestic violence, suspensions, or custody disputes.

Slides from a Knightscope presentation made to Huntington Park, CA, city council. June 2019.

Knightscope also highlights its license plate recognition capabilities, which can send an alert for blacklisted plates. Knighscope indicates that this feature could help protect employees from domestic abusers, mark suspicious vehicles, track returning terminated employees, and aid police “be on the lookout” (BOLO) alerts.

Slides from a Knightscope presentation made to Huntington Park, CA, city council. June 2019.

While scanning an area using cameras, lidar, and optional thermal imaging, Knightscope robots also scan for wireless devices, according to the presentation. This capability allows the robot to discreetly track individuals in its proximity, regardless of whether it can identify their faces. The presentation details how a person’s cell phone can be matched to their identity, and be used to track every time they come in proximity of a Knightscope robot over the course of several days. In two separate contracts obtained by OneZero, Knightscope indicates that the policing data the robots collect are available for police departments to download for two weeks. After that, they are deleted from Knightscope servers.

“90%+ of Adults Have Smartphones And Use WiFi When Available,” the presentation says, adding it can be used to detect suspicious packages, unauthorized devices in secure areas, workplace violence threats, or just identify someone walking by.

Each of these technologies, especially facial recognition and automatic license plate readers, have been repeatedly decried by privacy activists for being invasive and unlawful overreach when used by police. Cities including San Francisco, Oakland, and Somerville, MA have all banned police use of facial recognition outright. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has documented five local governments that have halted the procurement or use of automatic license plate readers over privacy concerns.

A Knightscope presentation made to Huntington Park, CA, city council. June 2019.

Senior Writer at OneZero covering surveillance, facial recognition, DIY tech, and artificial intelligence. Previously: Qz, PopSci, and NYTimes.

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