Must a Robot Warn You Before It Records You?

The designers of robots and cybernetic systems (like Google Glass) will naturally enable the systems to record events. 


But records have legal risks.

Laws Against Recording of Voice Conversations

Caution with Audio
Records that are too intrusive can creep people out, and legislatures have responded. To regulate the recording of human activity, many anti-surveillance laws have accumulated over the years. In the US the laws are complex, and vary by locale.

One general rule of thumb: to record a voice conversation without first getting the consent of each party to the conversation can be legally dangerous. In Pennsylvania, for example, one is generally forbidden from recording a voice conversation unless all the parties to the conversation consent.

Example: Ex-wife planted an audio recorder in a teddy bear and collected evidence of a father talking to a child. In a child custody case, the judge rejected the evidence because neither of the parties to the conversation (father or child) consented to the recording. Todd Cooper, "Custody case tip: Don't bug kid's teddy bear," Omaha World Herald, January 7, 2008.

Visual Recording and Consent

A second rule of thumb: privacy laws place few restrictions on visual recording (such as with video) of people in public. A third rule of thumb: the more that you get consent from the subjects of your recording, the less is your legal danger.


In the application of these rules, much depends on whether the subject of recording had a reasonable expectation of privacy.


Anti-Stalking Law

The operator of an aggressive recording system runs another legal risk:  Excessive, creepy recording may amount to illegal stalking.

Legal Notices and Warnings

Given the present state of law, a common practice for property owners is to record activity on their premises with video cameras but not audio recorders. Property owners are wise to post notices around the premises warning people that video cameras are in operation. The notices largely serve to obtain consent from visitors, for if visitors do not wish to consent they can leave the premises.

So what are the rules if a robot encounters a stranger on the street? It is quite possible the bot would possess the means to record the stranger's appearance, actions and words. If the bot does this, would its owner be violating the law? Due to the risk that the answer is yes, robot owners have to be careful.

Privacy Warning Posted on Robot

Maybe robots (or drones or cyborgs) could communicate privacy warnings. Maybe a written notice could flash somewhere on the bot, or maybe the bot could emit an audio notice: “Warning. If you approach me, I will make a video and audio recording.”

Suppose a robot with video capability is operating in a non-public space, such as a hallway in a building, and there are no notices warning visitors that they might be subject to video surveillance. When the robot encounters a human, it may need to either shut off the video, or obscure the human's image in the video record.

Record Lots of Data Other Than Audio from Voice

Given the law’s special disfavor for the recording of conversations, the designers of robotic (and cybernetic) systems will have reason to eschew recordings of the words that come from a human mouth. Therefore they may design their systems to record other data about interaction with strangers, such as the stranger’s odor, temperature, velocity, posture, chemical profile or non-conversation sounds. Legislation prohibiting these kinds of recordings is less common.

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Mr. Wright teaches the law of data security and investigations at the SANS Institute.


Related:  1.  See my previous post with suggestions on how people might use contracts and notices to protect themselves from undesirable snooping or other behavior by robots or cybernetic systems.

2.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation advocates that federal privacy laws be revised to prohibit secret video recording of people in private places, i.e., any place (such as a home) where a person would not reasonably expect to be photographed.

3.  Google Glass proposes to record what the wearer is seeing and hearing.  Maybe it needs to be outfitted with a light that warns bystanders that they are being recorded.

Update:  Warning sign on school campus about voice recordings by robot security guard.