Do We Really Want Cops With Body Cameras Filming Everything They See?

policecameraFrom Mother Board

Police departments across America are eagerly fitting their officers with surveillance cameras that record the public from a cop’s point of view. The technology was trotted out as a way to keep police accountable—to cut back on brutality, acquit wrongfully accused officers, and bust the ones that abuse their power.

Framed with that noble intention, there’s plenty to commend about law enforcement’s latest toy. But folks are singing the praises so loudly it’s drowning out a host of crucial privacy questions that need to be asked as we creep toward nationwide police surveillance.

And creeping we are: A growing number of police departments are adopting the cameras, which are worn attached to glasses or a uniform. The New Orleans police jumped on the bandwagon yesterday, joining the likes of Oakland, Las Vegas, Seattle, and others that already use the cameras. Los Angeles is in the middle of a Hollywood fundraising campaign to purchase 500 body-worn cameras for the LAPD. In New York City, a federal court suggested the NYPD try out a pilot program to cut back on unconstitutional stop-and-frisks.

Lord knows the police need policing, and there’s logic in assuming that if your actions are watched and recorded all the time you’re more likely to behave responsibly—be you civilian or cop. But seen another way, camera-fitted policeman smacks of a surveillance-happy government that’s gone a bridge too far. Even if it’s possible to privacy-invade someone into good behavior, that doesn’t mean it’s not an unsettling can of worms to open.

That was more or less NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gut reaction. In a city with 35,000 officers, he said body-worn cameras would be “a nightmare.” “We can’t have your cameraman follow you around and film things without people questioning whether they deliberately chose an angle, whether they got the whole picture in,” he said, reported the New York Times.

And while proponents tout the camera as a way to surveil the police, there’s no denying it’s also a way for the police to surveil the public. “Imagine a day in the city of New Orleans, in the not too distant future, where every single time we pull over a car, we ask somebody who they are or what they’re doing, that that entire incident is audiotaped and videotaped,” New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas told the News Star yesterday. “We’re very excited about it. It’s coming.” How is that not scary?

What’s more, the footage will be automatically uploaded to the cloud, where it’s tagged, analyzed, and stored for later use as potential evidence. Taser, whose Axon camera is the leading brand in use, offers an accompanying website with the devices to streamline that process, Evidence.com.

That could be useful to add clarity to the he said/she said back-and-forth plaguing many police misconduct cases. And to that end, there’s financial incentive for the wearable cameras that’s bound to have something to do with police departments’ enthusiasm; departments shell out billions in legal fees for misconduct claims.

But again, that’s just the intended use of the footage. Can it also be used to incriminate a citizen caught on camera? What about the video from when cops go into private homes? Could police scan footage to identify people at a protest? Or turn the camera on and off in the field to manipulate how an incident looks? Or strategically redact parts of the video, as the software it comes with allows?

The questions go on and on. Is the footage public record? Searchable online? Do police inform citizens that they’re being recorded? Can people ask for the cameras to be shut off? What’s to stop videos from getting leaked to the press, or emailed around the local police department as a joke, or popping up on YouTube and going viral? And what’s next, wifi-enabled cameras livestreaming video to the web?

“Police officers often interact with people who are in vulnerable states, or not at their best,” Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU recently told The Huffington Post. “The fact that video is being taken for accountability purposes does not mean it should end up on the evening news.” The Los Angeles Police Protective League echoed that sentiment, saying in a statement that, “Among other issues, recording a very personal moment or a deeply visceral reaction to a violent or tragic crime scene may serve no purpose other than to satisfy morbid curiosity and embarrass someone.”

Needless to say, there are policies and rules that need to go hand-and-hand with the growing trend. To that end, a Justice Department-funded public policy group is working to study the issue and draft some guidelines. In fact, the ACLU supports police body cameras, as long as enough rules are in place to protect citizens’ privacy.

Advocates argue that more data gets you closer to the truth, which can only be a positive thing. But data can be misinterpreted, manipulated, and collected. As we well know by now, once information’s in the cloud, there’s no surefire way of protecting it from would-be snoopers. And with facial-recognition technology advancing, always-on body cameras could theoretically supply the government with a massive database of identified faces that knows where you were, with who, and when. That seems like a high price to pay to make sure police officers play nice.