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Police Body Cameras. What They Are And The Privacy Issues

This blog has reported about the spread of several new surveillance technologies outside consumers' homes (more later about the spread inside homes), from smart mannequins to retail stores spying on their shoppers to smart grocery store shopping carts to smart trash recycle bins to automated license plate readers to drones. to BYOD work policies (where some employers may download the entire contents of employees' personal mobile devices used for work). Today's blog post is about a new technology used by many local police departments.

For several years, police departments have used video cameras mounted in their vehicles. The next step in the evolution of video surveillance has been the adoption by police departments of "police body cameras," also called "police cams" or "on-officer cameras." These are tiny recording devices attached to police officers' clothing -- part of the new category of wearable mobile devices.

Police departments in Albuquerque, New Mexico and other cities recently purchased on-officer cameras. The Los Angeles Police Department is considering a pilot program for the use of on-body cameras.

While everyone agrees that the recording and documenting of criminal wrongdoing with video cameras is a good thing, the concerns center around abuse of the information recorded against innocent people. The ACLU summarized the privacy issues:

"Will police officers have the discretion to control what the cameras record? If officers can “edit on the fly,” that will destroy this technology’s value as a police accountability tool. Should officers’ cameras be on at all times during their shift, or would it be too oppressive for officers to have every chat between partners in a patrol car recorded, and to worry that recordings will be misused by police supervisors against whistleblowers or union activists?... Are good policies are put in place to ensure that these cameras do not invade the privacy of particular individuals, or become yet another vector for mass surveillance? How can we ensure that citizens are made aware that they are being recorded; that video taken inside a person’s home (during a domestic violence call or burglary investigation, for example) or in other sensitive situations does not embarrass someone and cause others to hesitate to call for help? How can we ensure that video of embarrassing or titillating incidents does not get circulated within a police force for laughs, or end up on the internet? How can we ensure that the public has faith that video of their interactions with the police will be strictly handled?"

To address these issues, the ACLU recommended specific policy guidelines for the deployment of body-mounted cameras by police departments:

"... the challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability. Overall, we think they can be a win-win—but only if they are deployed within a framework of strong policies to ensure they protect the public without becoming yet another system for routine surveillance of the public, and maintain public confidence in the integrity of those privacy protections. Without such a framework, their accountability benefits would not exceed their privacy risks."

The policy recommendations cover the following areas:

  • Notice to citizens
  • Recording in citizens' homes
  • Data retention
  • Use of recordings
  • Subject Access (indexing of video content)
  • Public Disclosure
  • Technology Controls

You can easily read online the numerous policy recommendations, so I did not repeate them here. Or download the report (Adobe PDF). The City Council in Cambridge, Massachusetts voted for a period of public discussion before the deployment of DHS surveillance cameras. The same applies to police body cameras.

Now, you know what to discuss with local politicians and law enforcement officials where you live.


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