That cute robot cop can instantly work out who you are

They look so friendly, as they roll along your shopping mall. Some, though, are concerned about what robot cops are really up to.

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So cute. So nosy.

They don't have a gun. They just have personality.

They roll around shopping malls and parking lots, like futuristic Blarts, offering you a sense of modern reassurance.

Originally, Knightscope's robot cops were the source of neighborhood humor. They'd fall in fountains and then proclaim they weren't dead.

Yet we should have worried, perhaps, that these were Trojan ponies, ready to trot into our lives and recount our movements to the powers-that-be.

I've been shivering, you see, after reading of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's concerns.

Sample: "The next time you're at a protest and are relieved to see a robot rather than a baton-wielding officer, know that that robot may be using the IP address of your phone to identify your participation," says the EFF.

I tend not to be seen at protests, other than in this column, but I can imagine one or two enthusiastic marchers will mutter: "What the EFF?"

The EFF says that the Huntingdon Park, Calif., police has been boasting to its mayor and city council that the wireless technology in these robots' bowels is "capable of identifying smartphones within its range down to the MAC and IP addresses."

The company has a section on its site touting "Cellular Device Detection of Persons of Interest."

It reads, in part: "When a device emitting a Wi-Fi signal passes within a nearly 500ft radius of a robot, actionable intelligence is captured from that device including information such as: Where, when, distance between the robot and device, the duration the device was in the area, and how many other times it was detected on site recently."

One shouldn't be surprised, of course. A couple of years ago, Knightscope boasted that some of its robots had facial recognition capabilities.

The company then explained: "While facial recognition is largely seen as a tool to protect against known threats, it is also capable of greeting VIPs with a personal message and notifying our clients of VIP arrivals on site."

I fear facial recognition is largely seen as a surveillance tool employed by too many governments for quite nasty reasons, too often against innocent people. It can be seen as frighteningly inaccurate, too.

The EFF worries that the efficacy of these robots is all in the programming. It's already accepted that facial recognition and AI have a troubling racial bias. "If robots are designed to think people wearing hoods are suspicious, they may target youth of color," says the EFF's policy analyst Matthew Guariglia.

I twice asked Knightscope if it recognized an issue with any potential privacy concerns and will update, should its PR -- or AI -- respond.

I regularly get updates from Knightscope, as the company markets its latest achievements.

"New contracts in new places," shouted one from last year. A water district, a storage facility, and an apartment complex in Las Vegas have all signed up.

Perhaps you'll find such moves understandable, if not pacifying, as hiring good security humans isn't always easy.

Then there was the announcement that Knightscope is the sole provider of Autonomous Security Robots on the NCPA platform. That would be the National Cooperative Purchasing Alliance. It's a government thing.

Hark at Knightscope's enthusiasm: "Contracts are available for use to over 90,000 agencies nationwide in both the public and nonprofit sectors including: K-12, Higher Education, City, County, State, Healthcare, Church/Religious and all Non-profit organizations."

A security robot at your kid's school? A security robot that could instantly know -- and, let's dream a little of the future -- and transmit who your kid is and what they're doing? A security robot at your church -- let's dream a little more of a bright future -- that might (accidentally) overhear your confessions?

Those are, of course, merely my happy hopes but this was always going to be a fraught enterprise.

Why, last week I received the latest of Knightscope's promotional emails. This one boasted: "Suffice it to say that 2020 will go down as one of the most challenging years for generations to come. And in spite of the pandemic and political turmoil, Knightscope has continued to fight tooth and nail for the safety of our country."

All hail, the friendly robot militia.

Which only made me remember another excited message Knightscope sent me just before Christmas. This one pointed to a fine article, headlined: "Will Robotics Specialist Knightscope be the Next Palantir?

A sample Bloomberg headline: "Palantir Knows Everything About You."