Robots and Privacy

Robots and Privacy


Patrick Lin, Keith Abney & George A. Bekey



Robots are commonplace today in factories and on battlefields. The consumer market for robots is rapidly catching up. A worldwide survey of robots by the United Nations in 2006 revealed 3.8 million in operation, 2.9 million of which were for personal or service use. By 2007, there were 4.1 million robots working just in people’s homes. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has gone so far as to argue in an opinion piece that we are at the point now with personal robots that we were in the 1970s with personal computers, of which there are many billions today. As these sophisticated machines become more prevalent—as robots leave the factory floor and battlefield and enter the public and private sphere in meaningful numbers—society will shift in unanticipated ways. This chapter explores how the mainstreaming of robots might specifically affect privacy.

It is not hard to imagine why robots raise privacy concerns. Practically by definition, robots are equipped with the ability to sense, process, and record the world around them. Robots can go places humans cannot go, see things humans cannot see. Robots are, first and foremost, a human instrument. And, after industrial manufacturing, the principle use to which we’ve put that instrument has been surveillance.

This chapter attempts to introduce a variety of ways in which robots may implicate the set of societal values loosely grouped under the term “privacy.” The first two categories of impact—surveillance and access—admit of relatively well-understood ethical, technological, and legal responses. The third category, however, tied to social meaning, presents an extremely difficult set of challenges. The harms at issue are hard to identify, measure, and resist. They are in many instances invited. And neither law nor technology has obvious tools to combat them. Our basic recourse as creators and consumers of social robots is to proceed very carefully.

Title of Book

Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics



Publication Date


Document Type

Book Chapter


MIT Press


Cambridge, MA


privacy, surveillance


Privacy Law | Science and Technology Law

Robots and Privacy

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