Digidog, a robotic dog used by the police, stirs privacy concerns

Written by Maria Cramer and Christine Hauser 

Two men were being held hostage in a Bronx apartment. They had been threatened at gunpoint, tied up and tortured for hours by two other men who pretended to be plumbers to get inside, police said.

One of the victims managed to escape and called the police, who showed up early Tuesday morning at the apartment on East 227th Street, unsure if the armed men were still inside.

The police decided it was time to deploy Digidog, a 70-pound robotic dog with a loping gait, cameras and lights affixed to its frame, and a two-way communication system that allows the officer maneuvering it remotely to see and hear what is happening.

Police said the robot can see in the dark and assess how safe it is for officers to enter an apartment or building where there may be a threat.

In the case of the Bronx home invasion, police said Digidog helped the officers determine that there was no one inside. Police said they were still searching for the two men, who stole a cellphone and $2,000 in cash and used a hot iron to burn one of the victims.

“The NYPD has been using robots since the 1970s to save lives in hostage situations & hazmat incidents,” the department said on Twitter. “This model of robot is being tested to evaluate its capabilities against other models in use by our emergency service unit and bomb squad.”

But the robot has skeptics.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat, described Digidog on Twitter as a “robotic surveillance ground” drone.

“Please ask yourself: When was the last time you saw next-generation, world-class technology for education, health care, housing, etc. consistently prioritized for underserved communities like this?” she said on Twitter, linking to a New York Post story about Digidog.

The City Council passed the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act last June amid efforts to overhaul the police force, many of them triggered by Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

The act requires the Police Department to be more transparent about its surveillance and technology tools, including Digidog, something civil libertarians said had been lacking.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, said empowering a robot to do police work could have implications for bias, mobile surveillance, hacking and privacy. There is also concern that the robot could be paired with other technology and be weaponized.

“We do see a lot of police departments adopting powerful new surveillance and other technology without telling, let alone asking, the communities they serve,” he said. “So openness and transparency is key.”

The New York Police Department did not respond to requests for comment about the civil liberty concerns.

A mobile device that can gather intelligence about a volatile situation remotely has “tremendous potential” to limit injuries and fatalities, said Keith Taylor, a former SWAT team sergeant at the police department who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“It’s important to question police authority; however, this appears to be pretty straightforward,” he said. “It is designed to help law enforcement get the information they need without having a deadly firefight, for instance.”

The New York Police Department is among three in the country that have the mechanical dog, which is built by Boston Dynamics, a tech company known for videos of its robots dancing and jumping with eerie, humanlike fluidity.

Boston Dynamics began selling the robot dog, which it calls Spot, last June. Most buyers have been utility and energy companies as well as manufacturers and construction companies, which use it to get into spaces too dangerous for humans, said Michael Perry, vice president of business development at the company.

The robot has been used to inspect sites with hazardous material. Early in the pandemic, it was used by health care workers to communicate with potentially sick patients at hospital triage sites, Perry said.

Most of the companies rename the robot after they buy it, giving it names like Bolt and Mac and Cheese, he said.

The Massachusetts State Police and the Honolulu Police Department are also using the robotic dog, which has a 90-minute battery life and walks at a speed of 3 mph.

Other police departments have called the company to learn more about the robot, which has a starting price of about $74,000 and may cost more with extra features, Perry said.

The robotic dog, which bears a resemblance to those featured in the 2017 “Metalhead” episode of “Black Mirror,” was not designed to act as a covert tool of mass surveillance, Perry said.

“It’s noisy and has flashing lights,” he said. “It’s not something that is discreet.”

The use of robots that can be deployed into dangerous situations to keep police officers out of harm’s way could become the norm.

In Dallas in 2016, police ended a standoff with a gunman sought in the killings of five officers by blowing him up using a robot.

In 2015, a man with a knife who threatened to jump off a bridge in San Jose, California, was taken into custody after police had a robot bring him a cellphone and a pizza.

And in 2014, police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, used a robot to “deploy chemical munitions” in a motel room where a man had barricaded himself with a gun, a department report said. He surrendered.

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