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The FBI Is Right About Google Cars Being Dangerous, But Wrong About Why

A new report from the feds says self-driving cars could be hacked by criminals — but the cars are more likely to aid the surveillance state.

by Natasha Lennard
Jul 17 2014, 12:25pm

Photo via Google/REX/AP

At first glance, Google's self-driving car seems like it would be a boon for law enforcement. Though currently just a prototype, the Google car promises to be as well-behaved as its cartoonish features suggest. It is designed to follow traffic rules, keep to legal speeds, and follow directions according to built-in GPS and video cameras.

If this is the car of the future, the death knell has sounded for getaway cars.

However, as if opening an invitation to hackers and savvy criminals, a new unclassified FBI report sees danger in these autonomobiles. The report, which notes that self-driving cars are likely to reduce road accidents, also highlights the possibility of "bad actors" using the cars for nefarious "multitasking."

As the Guardian reported, the FBI has highlighted risk in the ability "to conduct tasks that require use of both hands or taking one’s eyes off the road which would be impossible today." Drive-by shootings, for example, would be more precise when no hands need be on a wheel. The FBI report also noted the risk that the cars could be turned into self-driving bombs if rigged for ill intent.

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As I see it, the report reflects two things: One, the FBI sees danger everywhere, long before it is perhaps legitimate. Two, the FBI doesn't understand how technology of this sort proliferates. While, as with any technology, there is the possibility that a Google self-driving car could be hacked and repurposed for less-than-law-abiding activities, the car will serve authoritarian interests more than undermine them.

Everything about its design fits comfortably into our current surveillance-state nexus. By virtue of being able to track and navigate its environment, the car can necessarily be tracked and controlled. A tracking system, not a person, is in the driver's seat. That's the very premise of a self-driving car after all. When Iggy Pop sang, "I am the passenger and I ride and I ride," he extolled that heart-expanding freedom of someone else taking the wheel on a wild night drive. One assumes the same liberation will not be accorded to the passengers of an incorporated Google driving system.

The FBI calling the cars a potential "lethal weapon" is banal at best. All cars are lethal weapons. As far as the FBI is concerned, very little is not a lethal weapon: Muslim bodies are treated as lethal weapons, anarchist literature is a lethal weapon, bricks are lethal weapons.

It would certainly be interesting to see if and how self-driving cars (if and when they're a more common reality) can be hacked and repurposed beyond their factory settings. We might draw a useful corollary with drone technology here: It is interesting, for example, to see how activists and hobbyists are trying to use drones to surveil police and gather indicting information on factory farms and oil spills. However, infrastructures of power are working to ensure that drones are primarily used in the service of the state and capital. Consider the fact that BP is the first company to be granted the ability to use drones over US soil, while so-called "ag-gag" laws threaten activists interested in collecting data on factory farm abuses.

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The idea that self-driving cars will be rigged to evade prevailing structures of power is possible (as it is with drones) but unlikely (as we are seeing with drones). I'd agree that the technology is dangerous, but for reasons opposite to stated FBI fears. A vehicle that looks as though it was wrenched from a Pixar movie that both demands and enables a surveillance system foretells a creepy near-future with no getaway.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

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