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Who Let the Dogs Out? Robotic Dogs Are the Newest (and Scariest) Surveillance Tech in U.S. Police Departments

by Jo Ellen Nott

After months of debate, the Los Angeles City Council approved the donation of a $280,000 robotic police dog in late May of 2023 in a rowdy public meeting that saw disruptive protestors ejected and banners displayed that read “No Robot Dogs.”

The Boston Dynamics robotic canine given to the Los Angeles Police Department is roughly the size of a golden retriever, but it does not have any of the warm fuzziness of a beloved family pet. The four-legged robot can be remote controlled or fully autonomous. It can climb stairs and open doors. The mechanical canine can be customized to detect hazardous substances like carbon monoxide or some combustible gases. Useful surveillance accessories can be added such as sensors, cameras, microphones, or even thermal imaging.

According to Undark, a non-profit digital magazine exploring the intersection of science and society, the use of the robotic K-9 in Los Angeles will require quarterly reports on its deployment made to the City Council. A recent state law—Assembly Bill 481—requires police departments to seek approval and outline use policies before acquiring military-grade hardware. The Los Angeles Police Department did release a use policy for its Boston Dynamics robot, limiting the device to specific tactical situations and prohibiting facial recognition, weaponization, and the robots’ use during routine patrols.

Los Angeles may be an outlier by requiring its police department to be transparent about its use of their newest K-9 officer. Critics of the latest military-grade toy that police departments are acquiring nationwide say that many law enforcement agencies are not being transparent about the intended use of their somewhat scary mechanical canine.

New York City is one of those cities. The Big Apple bought two Boston Dynamics robotic dogs with asset forfeiture funds, in addition to the new K5 surveillance robot, which has the seemingly benign appearance of a cross between Star War’s R2D2 and Dr. Who’s Dalek.

As more and more cities acquire the dog-like robots, scientists, researchers, and policy advocates have concerns regarding the lack of data, mission creep, and weaponization. There is no publicly available data currently on the overall number of canine robots deployed by law enforcement agencies in the U.S. nor on their effectiveness or safety. In addition, there is a lack of independent academic or scientific data on the effectiveness of these units.

According to Alondra Nelson, a recent acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, “The lack of statistics is concerning. We don’t have any data on the technology’s safety, effectiveness, failure rate, and human interactions. Fundamentally, we just don’t have basic notice and explanation on how these things are being used.”

A second concern among those alarmed by the spreading use of robotic dogs is mission creep. Mission creep is the tendency for police departments to expand the use of surveillance technologies over time, with the eventual result of robots being used to over-police and over-surveil the communities that they serve.

It’s crucial to establish guardrails when implementing new surveillance technologies because there is a tendency to “mission creep,” said Nicol Turner Lee, a sociologist at the Brookings Institution. “There is a propensity to improve those technologies for greater accuracy,” she said. “And in the criminal justice system, greater accuracy can almost always amount to higher levels of incarceration.”

The most troubling concern of researchers, policy analysts, and ethicists is the weaponization of the robotic dogs. They worry that the robots could be armed with Tasers and other weapons that could lead to the development of armed and fully autonomous killing machines roaming the streets of America. A consequence of arming robotic dogs is that it would likely escalate many citizen-police encounters and lead to unnecessary injuries or deaths.

Taser manufacturer Axon Enterprise of Arizona is reportedly conducting research on how to equip a robotic dog with its notorious electroshock weapon. Axon’s global vice-president of corporate communications told Undark that the company “believes the future of policing will include more robotic security and [Axon] will continue to innovate in that space.”

As law enforcement agencies continue to add more weapons to their surveillance arsenal, it is crucial to establish guardrails for each new technology as it comes online. Additionally, government policy surrounding transparency and accountability must be put into place and monitored to ensure the least harm to the public.  

 

Source: Undark 

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