Yes to Police Body Cameras and to Necessary Regulation of Their Use

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the ACLU, has a very important post on that group’s website about the use of police body cameras and how to balance the need for them with privacy concerns for those they encounter while on the job. The takeoff point is a plan by Miami Beach to use such cameras for code enforcement officers, parking enforcement officers, building and fire inspectors.

In a white paper on body cameras, the ACLU had earlier noted:

Body cameras have more of a potential to invade privacy than [other] deployments. Police officers enter people’s homes and encounter bystanders, suspects, and victims in a wide variety of sometimes stressful and extreme situations. . . . Perhaps most troubling is that some recordings will be made inside people’s homes, whenever police enter—including in instances of consensual entry… and such things as domestic violence calls.

These are genuine concerns that underscore the need to regulate who has access to the footage and under what circumstances.

Balanced against these privacy dangers, however, is the significant need to increase oversight in light of the long record of abusive and illegal behavior by police officers (and other law enforcement agents like Border Patrol officers). Police in specific circumstances are given the authority to shoot to kill, to use brutal force, and to arrest citizens—and all too often, officers abuse those powers.

I am not aware of any cases of building inspectors shooting unarmed civilians in the course of their work. The fact is, these jobs do not come with the frightening powers that police officers possess, and so do not need the same kinds of checks on those powers. Deploying body cameras on these workers would bring all the downsides of police body cams—including in some cases filming inside private homes—without any of the benefits. The balance is completely different.

In that ACLU white paper, they suggest many important safeguards to protect the privacy of both the public and of police officers. Legislatures and police departments should pay close attention to those recommendations when making policy.

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  • http://www.thelosersleague.com theschwa

    Deploying body cameras on these workers would bring all the downsides of police body cams—including in some cases filming inside private homes—without any of the benefits

    I suspect that is a feature, not a bug. They can deploy them here on the expendable fodder, point how they are obtrusive and invasive and then conclude the whole concept does not work.

  • briandavis

    I’m going to be optimistic and assume that cameras on code enforcement, building and fire inspection officers are intended to stop bribery and false accusations of bribe solicitations.

  • Kevin Kehres

    I don’t know what “privacy rights” are being violated with cameras during government-mandated fire and building inspections that aren’t also being violated merely by having an inspector. If someone can’t hide their stash of weed before the inspector shows up, does it matter if they’re wearing a camera or not?

    Police will tell you that one of the most-dangerous types of calls they make are domestic disputes. I think there are more police injuries during that kind of call than any other. And there are a lot of them. Heck, you even see it on the Cops-type shows when there are BIG HUGE TV CAMERAS pointed at the participants.

    Better to have a record of what really happened.

  • Crimson Clupeidae

    It’s amazing how often these cameras ‘malfunction’ though, often multiple cameras at the same time, when something happens the police don’t want the public to see.

    I wish every place that adopts cameras would add legislation that creates a severe penalty whenever video evidence is ‘lost’ or a camera ‘malfunctions’ while on duty. Also, any traffic ticket or arrest that can’t be backed up with video is automatically tossed out. :)

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    One of the things that the “anti camera” arguments often neglect to mention is that with some of the systems, such as the Taser Axon, the video is sequestered at Taser’s cloud not at the police department’s. That way there are no accidental leaks or deletions – to get the full video a warrant has to be presented to Taser, and it cannot be deleted, by design. There are also strong audit controls on browsing the video — if some cop responded to a domestic and there was a naked woman there, and the cop shot an eyeful, told his friends, and …. oops, they couldn’t access it because it’s locked to people with the correct authority at the police HQ, only.

    The properties of these systems are published and are well-known. I know something about them because I was a consultant on the security of the data comms part. But you can learn about how they work from Taser’s website. When someone makes up a scenario about “privacy violation” with such a system they are lying. It’s important to know that. They are lying because, of course, cops don’t want to be monitored. Why not? Speculate.

    Here’s the thing – if a cop is called to someone’s house and videos their response, privacy isn’t an issue because if the cop is doing things right they’ll ask “may I come in?” and if appropriate they’ll inform the people “by the way I am in record mode…” Or if it’s a forcible entry scenario they’ll have a warrant, which means, in effect, permission from a judge to violate someone’s privacy.

    The excuses against these systems are complete bullshit. Cops don’t want to be monitored. Why? Because there are a lot of bad cops.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    It’s amazing how often these cameras ‘malfunction’ though

    That’s another nice thing about the Taser system. :) When one of the cop cams goes offline, the operations center is immediately notified.

    Work that one through:

    1) NOC tells cop to respond to (whatever)

    2) Cop goes to respond

    3) Cop camera suddenly shuts off

    4) NOC has log that the camera went off

    5) a shooting happens

    6) Cop camera comes back on, or is discovered not to be malfunctioning…

    One of the things I like about the Taser system is that it sends a lot of status codes with the heartbeat. So if the thing is telling the NOC “I am at 90% battery power and these are my GPS coordinates” a cop is going to have a problem if they say they were nowhere near the scene of the incident or that the battery suddenly died. 😉

    Of course, for some very very strange reason, the cops never accepted the argument that this system protects them against false claims. Someone says that the cop demanded a bribe? Retrieve the video and the cop is exonerated. Right? Right? Hello, officer Pork? Don’t you want to be exonerated?

  • Rick Pikul

    I don’t know what “privacy rights” are being violated with cameras during government-mandated fire and building inspections that aren’t also being violated merely by having an inspector. If someone can’t hide their stash of weed before the inspector shows up, does it matter if they’re wearing a camera or not?

    The camera changes the concern from:

    “Hey Bob, you won’t believe what I saw on an inspection today.”

    to

    “Hey Bob, you’ve got to see what I saw on an inspection today.”

    “Wow! I have to send a copy to Joe!” (Who will send it on to three other people, one of whom posts to YouTube.)

  • zmidponk

    @Rick Pikul

    Even without the kind of strict controls Marcus Ranum details in #5, it would be pretty easy to tell who’s camera the footage was shot from, so all that would happen is the inspector who leaked the footage would get disciplined (or should do, if the department’s being run correctly).

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    “Hey Bob, you’ve got to see what I saw on an inspection today.”

    “Wow! I have to send a copy to Joe!” (Who will send it on to three other people, one of whom posts to YouTube.)

    These systems weren’t designed by complete idiots. They were designed to be used by complete idiots, though.

    So, the way that the Taser Axon works, it transcodes the collected video and subsamples a frame per second (or so) into a scroll-gallery (similar to the one you get on youtube when you slide the time-scrubber across the video) The scroll gallery is smaller and lower resolution, but it’s sufficient to tell what part of the video you actually want. When the transcode process is completed, the unit of video is encrypted with to a set of public keys held respectively by Taser executives, an escrow agency, and an authorized escrow account at the police department or agency. That way, when the guy says “I have to send a copy to Joe” — there is no copy for him to send. He’d have to go to his boss, or whoever was the designated person with access and say “I need the clip from Nov 5, 2013 starting at 11:20am and ending at 11:50am.” Then the designated person would pop that into a query and out would come the video. The video is time/date stamped and all accesses to it are logged. No matter who tries, the video can’t be deleted. So if the video wound up on youtube it’d be impossible to hide who leaked it.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    PS -at $500 a unit (disclaimer: I have no economic relationship with Taser anymore) the units cost less than a cruiser car chugs in gas every month. And, given how much even a minor lawsuit can cost, it’s absolutely ridiculous that every officer that carries a weapon in the US is not required to wear some kind of cloud camera.

  • Rick Pikul

    Even without the kind of strict controls Marcus Ranum details in #5, it would be pretty easy to tell who’s camera the footage was shot from, so all that would happen is the inspector who leaked the footage would get disciplined (or should do, if the department’s being run correctly).

    And how many got fired for posting images from those airport scanners online? Sure, you should get in trouble for leaking things but the instant you have two people with access, (e.g. the inspector and somebody in IT), you get a bunch of people saying “well, it wasn’t _me_.”

    Now, yes there are ways of preventing such abuse, that it is possible to address a concern does not mean that the concern either does not exist or is not justified.

  • eric

    One of the things that the “anti camera” arguments often neglect to mention is that with some of the systems, such as the Taser Axon, the video is sequestered at Taser’s cloud not at the police department’s. That way there are no accidental leaks or deletions

    Didn’t some hollywood starlet just have a bunch of private pictures hacked from a cloud-based private database?

    I fully agree with sequestration or control by a third party. But the point of saying that is, I’d still try and limit the camera requirement to those public offices that have a history of (or reason to suspect) endemic bribery, corruption, abuse of power, and use of violence. It doesn’t make civil liberties sense to record everything, and “its on a secure cloud” is not a sufficient defense for doing so, because security is always imperfect. If there’s no compelling government or civil need for recording some interaction, just don’t record it. Police? Compelling need. Health inspector? Unless that city or district has a history of corruption, probably not.

    To be honest, I’m surprised other relatively high-risk jobs don’t use them for lessons learned. Maybe the litigation risk is just too high to justify it, but I would think that (for example) firemen would want to review tapes of what happened in a building after some livesaving or property saving mission goes wrong. That has nothing to do with thinking firemen are corrupt, it has to do with them wanting to figure out what sorts of desicions or mistakes lead to bad outcomes.

  • eric

    And upon reading my own post, I realize I passed up a spectacular opportunity for a joke.

    I’d still try and limit the camera requirement to those public offices that have a history of (or reason to suspect) endemic bribery, corruption, abuse of power, and use of violence.

    So, um, Congress.

  • yoav

    @Marcus Ranum

    The way I read it the purpose of the ACLU paper is to identify potential issue and suggest that proper safeguards, such as the ones you described, would be implemented when a system is being setup.

  • doublereed

    Well the police departments have to decide what and how they’re going to implement the cameras and how much it will cost and all that. They don’t necessarily have to go with Taser Axon.

  • Rick Pikul

    Didn’t some hollywood starlet just have a bunch of private pictures hacked from a cloud-based private database?

    A fix for that might be to have the data encrypted using a ‘two key’ system: You need both the police and the data center keys to decrypt, you might even keep the decrypt keys isolated by sneakernet unless legal authorization for release is in play. It still may be possible to intercept during transmission from the officer, (depending on where the encryption is done), but a data center intrusion doesn’t get you anything useable.