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Spot is a Cop

A new report shows that Boston Dynamics loaned its Spot robot to the Massachusetts State Police, and civil liberties groups are concerned.

by Samantha Cole
Nov 25 2019, 7:37pm

Screenshot via Boston Dynamics

Cops are already using Boston Dynamics' creepy Spot robot, and they’re not being very transparent about what the four-legged mechanical hellhound is getting up to while it's in their care.

According to a report by Boston news station WBUR, documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts show that the state’s bomb squad had Spot on loan from Boston Dynamics for three months, from August to November this year.

It's not clear from these documents, or statements made by the department, how the Spot was used in those three months. State police spokesman David Procopio told WBUR that it was used as a “mobile remote observation device," and that Spot is a valuable tool for law enforcement "because of its ability to provide situational awareness of potentially dangerous environments.”

Although you might be more familiar with Spot's appearance in cutesy marketing videos, Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert has said in the past that the company is courting police departments. “We’re doing a limited amount of work with police departments,” Raibert told VentureBeat in November. “Only on hazmat and bomb squad type activities. When they go into a situation where they don’t know what a thing is and they want to take a look? Send the robot in. They’re learning and we’re learning."

Massachusetts state police told WBUR that Spot was used in two incidents, in addition to testing. It's unclear what those incidents were. Massachusetts State Police did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment.

"There is a lot we do not know about how and where these robotics systems are currently deployed in Massachusetts," Kade Crockford, Technology for Liberty program director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, told Motherboard. "All too often, the deployment of these technologies happens faster than our social, political, or legal systems react. We urgently need more transparency from government agencies, who should be upfront with the public about their plans to test and deploy new technologies. We also need statewide regulations to protect civil liberties, civil rights, and racial justice in the age of artificial intelligence."

According to emails reviewed by WBUR, a lieutenant on the special tactical operations team in Massachusetts wrote to a colleague, “Dude, it’s time,” with a link to a New York Post article headlined, “Boston Dynamics’ creepy dog-like robot is about to go on sale," and other troopers later shared a YouTube video of Spot dancing to Bruno Mars and navigating a construction site.

Listen, I'll be honest: This robot demon was never cute to me. I have only ever wanted to fight it. Like cops needlessly pulling people over to give them ice cream, Boston Dynamics marketing that depicts Spot as anything but a tool of authoritarian police forces goes squarely into the category of being cute for propaganda purposes—something other technologies with marketing campaigns that mask potential privacy abuses, such as Amazon’s Ring, have in common with Spot.

It's not hard to imagine a future where people are fighting to keep Spots out of their communities like they currently fight against mass facial recognition, Amazon HQ, and electric scooters.

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Boston Dynamics