Linear Technology, Robots, And Law Enforcement

When people think of robots, they often think of anthropomorphic machines such as R2-D2 and C-3PO, the Star Wars characters we all have come to know and love. These robots are seen as cute, futuristic, and humanlike. In reality, robots are nothing like these semi-cuddly friends in science fiction movies. It is important to understand that these robots have developed over many years with many social actors shaping their development. Two such actors are U.S. border patrol and law enforcement. These two actors shape the use of robots, and each use raises different issues related to privacy, law, and general ambivalence that Americans feel towards the increasing amount of automation in our everyday lives. While robots in border patrol may seem more innocuous to our everyday privacy than robots in local law enforcement, the public must come to understand that these two uses for robots are not inseparable and cannot exist in a vacuum.

In her New York Times article, Fernanda Santos explains how U.S. Border Patrol uses robots to combat drug traffic. Santos writes that, “[t]he robots, valued for their speed and maneuverability, can serve as the first eyes on places considered too risky for humans to explore.” This is best seen with robots that help border patrol investigate tunnels used for drug trade. Clearly these automated robots have many benefits. While a person would need to put on protective gear prior to investigating these tunnels, a robot could explore it with the push of a button. Furthermore, these robots are seen as working to protect communities and people from negative consequences of the illegal drug trade. The article raises very few issues of privacy, which is interesting in that a slightly different use for nearly the same robot creates a much different public response.

Robot technology is also used by local law enforcement. A California company, Kinghtscope, is manufacturing a roving robot to monitor crime-ridden neighborhoods. According to CEO William Li, “[Knightscope’s] aim is to cut the crime rate by 50% in a geo-fenced area, which would increase housing values and safety while lowering insurance costs.” These robots are equipped with cameras, scanners, and cost roughly $1000 per month for an eight-hour shift. Many of the same benefits apply to using robots in local law enforcement as exist in border patrol uses. People are put at less risk and robots are able to go and explore where real humans cannot. However, despite some similarities to the border patrol uses, this case raises perhaps more obvious privacy concerns than robot use in law enforcement. Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the watchdog group Electronic Privacy Information Center, views “this kind of surveillance technology has an unbounded capacity to collect personal information that a single patrol officer doesn’t.” Fears of privacy has even spurred the California State Legislature to work on a bill requiring a judge to issue a permit to law enforcement prior to using a robot to collect information via air. Privacy concerns appear to be more prevalent in this case than the first.

These two case studies of robot use point to how the public and lawmakers view different applications of essentially the same technology. However, it is impossible to have one use without the other. As automated robots and systems expand, different sectors will find equally useful purposes for the technology. While privacy concerns may be real, it is impossible to isolate uses. Ultimately, once a new technology is unleashed on society, it has a snowball effect and gets picked up in other ways. This fact largely points to the idea that technology develops in a nonlinear way. As outlined in Pinch and Biker’s work, The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts (1987), technology is influenced in a “multidimensional” way (28). In the robot example, many different factors and actors (need to control crime, limits of humans, U.S. Department of Justice, cities, technology innovators) contributed to the different uses of robots; therefore, each use also had a different influence, which caused it to arise. While privacy discussions are ones that can be had as time goes on, the idea that robot technology must exist in a vacuum for only certain uses will not be possible in our 21st century society.



“California bill would ban warrantless drone surveillance.” 30 Jan. 2014.

“California company builds 5-foot android robocops to control crime-ridden areas.” 04 Feb. 2014.

Pinch, T. J. and W. E. Bijker (1987). “The social construction of facts and artifacts: Or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other.” In The Social Construction of Technological Systems, p.17-50. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Santos, Fernanda. “Border’s New Sentinels Are Robots, Penetrating Deepest Drug Routes.” New York Times. 22 Feb. 2014


Andrew Postal

Andrew is a former CCT Graduate Student.