Tag Archives: body-worn video

Can Police BodyCam Video be Public while protecting Privacy?

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray launches bodycam Workshop

You have a serious car accident. The police arrive and investigate. They issue a citation and write a report. The officers are wearing body-worn video cameras and their cars have dashcam video. At the end of the event the officer gives you a code. The next day you go online to the police department’s website, key in the code and all the materials regarding the collision are available to you – the videos, with a written transcript, the officers’ reports, the citation, the sketches and photographs of the accident scene, witness statements, and perhaps a history of other collisions and problems at that intersection.

That’s one vision laid out at a body-cam video workshop hosted by the Seattle Police Department on Tuesday, June 23. The event included officers from the Orlando, Louisville and Dallas police departments, plus representatives of the Police Foundation, Code for America and Socrata, the Seattle company which powers open data portals such as data.gov and data.seattle.gov. These organizations are all participating in the White House sponsored Police Open Data initiative, announced last month by the Obama Administration.

“Policing is in a crisis,” said Seattle Police Chief Operating Officer (COO) Mike Wagers several times during the workshop. “Police are not necessarily using more force or making more mistakes,” he added, but there’s been a change in the technology available to the general public. “Two-thirds of adults in the United States will own a camera-capable smartphone by the end of this year.” Those smartphones mean there is more video than ever being taken of police-citizen encounters and uploaded to YouTube and similar sites.

What’s the real future for police video?   Can the privacy of victims, children and witnesses be protected while at the same time making this video public?   Is it possible to “redact” or blur the faces and audio of such people to protect them yet release the video to the public?

The rest of this article is on GeekWire here.

See also the previous article discussing how Seattle Police held a hackathon in December, 2014, to find ways to redact video.

Implementing a body-worn video camera program requires much more than just buying the cameras themselves – there is storage and indexing and search and making the video public and much more – here is a previous blog post discussing these issues.

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Filed under 911, hackathon, Law Enforcement, Seattle Police, video

Schrier’s Technology Wish List for 2015

Predicting the Future

Predicting the Future

It’s that time of year again where the top ten lists for the old year spurt out of pundits’ pens along with generally wrong prognostication predictions (that is “guesses”) for the next year.

I’m not very good at either figuring out which recent changes are most significant (I’ll bet the iPhone was one) or predicting what will happen during my day tomorrow, much less 365 days in the future.

But I’m not too bad at looking at the state of technology – especially in government – and wishing for what I’d like to see in the near future.

And here they are:

  • government (including its workers) embracing the cloud,
  • more women in tech,
  • police body-worn video cameras,
  • video recognition software and
  • last, but most important, wise elected officials.

Government Embracing the Cloud

Embracing the Cloud

Embracing the Cloud

Cloud services are the “next hot thing” in technology.  Or they were the next thing hot thing in 2010.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon – along with a number of other technology leaders – believes that very few private companies and governments will operate their own data centers in the future.   This is undeniably true simply because cloud service providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) have a tremendous economy of scale.  AWS probably has more than five million servers worldwide.  Every day – 365 days a year – Amazon Web Services installs more server capacity than the entire Amazon e-tailing enterprise had online in 2004.   And AWS has won notable contracts, such as the contract to operate the CIA’s data center.

Seattle has become a hotbed of cloud technology over the past 18 months.  The Seattle area has a number of the major players in this space such as Amazon, Microsoft Azure, CenturyLink, Google, and now even Dropbox and Apple.  The list includes a number of “niche” companies such as Taser International’s Evidence.com which supports cloud hosting of law enforcement data such as body-worn video data and Socrata, the leading cloud service for government open data.

Yet governments have been slow to adopt cloud technologies.  Governments continue to build and operate their own data centers, containing a few hundred servers, and operate much less efficiently than cloud services providers.   While some governments use cloud services such as Accela for permitting, Workday for human resources, and Socrata for open data, most applications continue to live in expensive government-owned data centers operated by government employees.

Why?

Part of the reason government is slow to adopt the cloud is perceived security concerns:  unless the applications data are on disk arrays and servers which government CIOs can touch and feel and see behind the doors of their very own data centers, these officials feel that, somehow, the hackers will get to them.   This concern is patently absurd, as cloud providers such as Microsoft and Amazon can afford to employ hundreds of security professionals compared to the handful in most governments.

Another problem is potential loss of jobs for workers who presently staff government data centers.   However governments badly need employees who will adapt new technologies for government businesses, who will code new web applications and apps for consumers and businesses to better do business with the government.   Government agencies are chronically short of such developers who, by the way, make a lot more money than data center operators and server administrators.   A retraining program for such government technology employees coupled with a move to the cloud will benefit everyone – taxpayers, businesses, government officials and tech employees.

It’s long past time for a wholesale move of government technology to cloud services.

More Women Coders and Women in Technology

Grace Hopper, Inventor of COBOL

Grace Hopper, Inventor of COBOL

I recently had the chance to visit a cloud services development company in the Seattle area.   The company had a variety of very leading edge practices, such as small team environments, self-directed teams, and superior compensation.    They bragged about their employee interview process:  they accepted about 1% of the people who applied or were recruited.

The place was entirely white and Asian-American men.    Well, there was a woman at the front desk.

Now, perhaps it is true that only young males have the interest and ambition to pursue coding.   But having an all young-white-male environment in any business anywhere is not good, for a whole variety of reasons:  all-male business cultures give rise to frat-house-like cultures such as apparently happened at Zillow.    With incomes stagnant or dropping for middle-income people, coding and app development are one of the few areas with tremendous growth in skills and wages – it is important this growth be shared by people of all genders.   Seattle, in particular, seems to have the widest pay gap between women and men.

There are probably many reasons for this disparity.  Perhaps our educational system needs to better emphasize technology careers for girls.   Maybe we need more tech savvy teachers in general, so we don’t have to import so much tech talent via the H1B visa program.  And we certainly need to embrace programs such as the “hour of code” evangelized by Seattle’s code-dot-org.

In fact, linking this problem back to the one above (governments’ need to embrace the cloud), perhaps we should start with an hour of code for all government workers – not just information technology workers, mind you, but ALL government workers.

Ubiquitous Use of Police Body Cams

body-worn-go-pro-wrist

Body Worn Video Camera (sort of) courtesy Go-Pro

President Obama’s December 1 announcement of funding for equipping 50,000 police officers with body-worn video is an innovative approach to improving public safety.   This initiative follows several tragic events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri.   Certainly the idea of recording most police-citizen interactions is appealing.

In a time of polarization about the role of the police in our communities, the use of body-worn video cameras seems to have universal support.   The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) dislikes video surveillance in general but likes body-worn cameras because they hold police officers accountable for their actions.   Police Unions like them because they hold citizens accountable for their actions – in two small studies, civilian complaints against police officers declined by 60% to 88% after implementation of body-cams.  Police officers like them because 98% or 99% of what the police do is overwhelming supportive of people in the community – saving drivers during auto accidents, breaking up domestic violence in homes, helping the homeless.  The Department of Justice likes the cameras, as do elected officials.    And they appear to work:  one DOJ study found showed use of force by officers declined by 60%, and violence from citizens against police also declined.   Prosecutors like video, as it helps establish and support criminal charges.

But, as in everything else, implementing body-worn video is not a panacea for improving policing.   I’ve written earlier about the difficulties of implementing such a program, so I won’t rehash those here.    And others have written about a variety of other problems such as the potential for “constant on” video cameras to create a surveillance state worse than even George Orwell envisioned.

Video Recognition and Indexing Software

Video video everywhere, underground and in the air.

Video cameras are becoming more and more ubiquitous.   Most of the population now carries a video camera on their person with them all the time.  Video surveillance cameras are in wide use in both private businesses and by public agencies such as Departments of Transportation.   A billion people use YouTube, which has 4 billion views each day and 100 hours of video uploaded each second.   And that’s just one video site!

But, like the thousands of unindexed photographs most people have lurking somewhere on hard drives and smart phones, video is hard to index and identify for future use.   Content recognition software is still inadequate – basically under development.

Good content recognition software will serve a variety of useful purposes – it could detect unauthorized use of copyrighted material, could recognize individuals and objects thereby indexing the clips, and could form the basis for databases of video metadata.   Such databases would useful for a variety of purposes such as indexing all that video of your family gatherings for the past 20 years, or storage and retrieval of police body-worn camera video.   Video is quite useful in solving crimes – video from private companies were used to solve the Boston Marathon terrorism and police dashcam video caught Christopher Monfort, alleged killer of Seattle Police Officer Tim Brenton on October 31, 2009.

A Wise Official

A Wise Official

Like audio or voice-recognition software, which is really still in its infancy, good video recognition software is a two edged sword, presenting privacy concerns as well as the useful purpose.

Conclusion

As always, these technology changes will outstrip the ability of our elected leaders to enact laws to deal with the resulting cultural and legal issues.   We demonstrated that this past year with all the controversies surrounding Uber and other car-sharing services in cities across the globe.   We see it in the constant struggle between public safety and privacy.

My final “wish” is for elected officials wise enough to embrace the positive power of new technologies, while controlling the negative implications.    And having the wisdom to know the difference.

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Filed under employees, future of technology, government, government operations, jobs, video

Will Obama’s Body-worn Video Cams for Cops really Work?

Body-Worn Video

Seattle Police with Vievu Video Camera

(This post originally appeared in Crosscut here. This version is more expanded and detailed.)

President Obama is redirecting at least $75 million in federal funding to buy body-worn video cameras for up to 50,000 police officers.   This initiative is driven partially by recent shootings of unarmed citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.   Seattle’s Crosscut has extensively reported on this issue.

Since the cameras are relatively inexpensive – a few hundred to a thousand dollars each – police departments around the nation should be able to rapidly and deploy this useful technology, right?

Wrong.

Police Officer Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has ignited a nationwide interest in the potential use of body-worn video cameras by police.   The Ferguson Police Department itself purchased and deployed such cameras for all of its officers just three weeks after the incident.   Other police departments from around the country joined this the body-cam bandwagon.

In a time of polarization about the role of the police in our communities, the use of body-worn video cameras seems to have universal support.   The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) dislikes video surveillance in general but likes body-worn cameras because they hold police officers accountable for their actions.   Police Unions like them because they hold citizens accountable for their actions – in two small studies, civilian complaints against police officers declined by 60% to 88% after implementation of body-cams.   Police management likes to use such video because it helps build public trust in law enforcement by showing accountability.   Many officers like video cameras because most of what they do is helping people – saving lives, performing CPR, protecting the vulnerable during serious crimes such as assaults and domestic violence – but this side of the work is rarely mentioned in the media.  The Department of Justice likes the cameras, as do elected officials.    And they appear to work:  one DOJ study found showed use of force by officers declined by 60%, and violence from citizens against police also declined.   Prosecutors like video, as it helps establish and support criminal charges, although evidence for such support is unclear (DOJ 2014 Study, page 7).

This trend is also good for Seattle, as two of the major companies working on police video technology have offices here.  Seattle’s VIEVU is a major supplier of the cameras themselves.   Taser International is headquartered in Phoenix but its cloud-services operation, evidence.com, is located in downtown Seattle.    Evidence.com stores video and serves it to both police departments and (when authorized) others such as attorneys and citizens.

The trouble is, it is difficult to widely deploy body-worn video cameras given a wide variety of technological and legal challenges.   Here are a few:

  1. Deploying cameras involves almost every unit within a police department. Besides patrol, police management will be involved, as will internal affairs, the legal staff, technology staff, evidence custodians, civilian staff involved with public disclosure and a number of outside agencies such as courts, prosecutors and public defenders.  This takes a lot of time and effort,
  2. Body-cams have an effect on the efficiency of patrol officers. On one hand police reports may be easier to write and charges easier to file because video shows at least part of the police interactions, statements by victims and witnesses, at the arrest.   On the other hand officers and supervisors will spend time reviewing video, a new task in their workdays.
  3. Body-cam video creates a huge volume of digital material. Seattle Police, for example, has a total of over 500 patrol officers.  If each officer works 40 hours a week, and the body-cam video is constantly recording, this represents 20,000 hours of video a week.  Of course most video systems are set up to record only at certain times, for example when the officer turns on the recording or (in the case of dashcam video) when the overhead lights are turned on during an incident or traffic stop.  But officer discretion also presents a number of problems.  Often incidents happen very fast – an officer sees a crime in progress and immediately responds to stop or apprehend the offender.  Officers may not have time to stop and turn on the video system because to do so places either the officer or a citizen in danger.   No matter what the policy for having the video operational, at the very least hundreds of hours of video will be produced each week.
  4. Police work occurs during abysmal conditions: rain, snow, traffic noise, night-time.   Audio and video quality often will be poor.
  5. Body-cam video presents major technology challenges. There are a whole variety of these, for examples:
    • Maintaining an adequate amount of disk storage;
    • Acquiring fast servers to immediately serve the video on demand;
    • Backing up the video to preserve it in case of disk storage failure;
    • Protection from intentional or inadvertent alteration;
    • Protection from intentional or inadvertent access, e.g. hacking or access by unauthorized employees or the public prior to redaction;
    • Creating a system to manage the video. Often this might include disk storage on the officer to hold the video, followed by offloading the video to a computer in the car, followed by offloading the video to data center servers when the car returns to a secure area.
    • Adding metadata so the video is easily searchable. Metadata attached to each video clip might include date, time, officers’ names, victims’ names, witness’ names, and case numbers.
  6. Video presents a major public disclosure issue. The Washington Public Records Act and the State Supreme Court’s decision in the case “KOMO-TV versus the Seattle Police Department” state these videos are public, except when a case is under investigation.   But such video captures, real-time, the trauma of often-innocent citizens who are crime victims, victims of domestic violence and rape, having a medical emergency and who are being detained or arrested – often when charges are later dropped.   The videos include statements from witnesses, victims, confidential informants and sometimes attorney-client privileged conversations.  A minority of the Supreme Court, in the KOMO decision, felt Washington’s Privacy Laws took precedence and agreed such video should not be released.  But the majority disagreed.   Public disclosure is the major reason most Washington police agencies do not widely employ body-worn video.  Baltimore has created a specific police task force to address privacy issues and others associated with body-cams.   Seattle has a digital privacy initiative to address not just police and body-cam issues, but privacy issues in general.
  7. Seattle Police Hackathon

    Seattle Police Hackathon

    Video requires redaction before release.  A sergeant with the Albuquerque Police Department observed that “officers a lot of times are seeing people on the worst day of their lives, and we’re capturing that on video that’s now a public record.” (DOJ Study, page 27.)  Common sense as well as privacy dictates every video should be reviewed and redacted.  This includes either getting permission of most of the citizens in the video to release it, or blurring faces and removing audio before release.  Indeed, changes to Washington State’s public records act or privacy laws may be required to deal with these redaction and public disclosure issues.  Redaction technology to reliably blur individual faces or otherwise redact video does not exist.  Redaction must be done manually, a time consuming and expensive process.   (Note:  the Seattle Police Department is conducting a hackathon on December 19, 2014, hoping to enlist the help of tech-savvy citizens to address the problem of redaction.)

  8. Unredaction may be an issue.  Technology allows at least partial redaction of video;   but similar technologies may be available to unredact video, re-instating the privacy concerns.
  9. Police departments need to develop a whole variety of policies to address the issues listed above and others.   Many of these issues are quite thorny.
    • Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson just released an opinion about whether an officer needs to ask permission and a citizen needs to give consent before their interaction is video-recorded. According to that opinion, police do not have to ask permission, even to record video inside a private residence.  Citizens may act differently – and behave better – if they know a recording is in progress.   Or elected officials may decide they want officers to ask permission before making recordings inside a private home.
    • As another example, basic facial recognition technology now exists. Should all police-recorded video be sent through facial recognition software to identify the individuals who have been recorded?
    • Should officers be allowed to turn the video on and off? If so, under what circumstances?
    • Such questions require serious deliberation.
  10. Deployment of body-worn video often requires re-negotiation of the police union contract, and negotiation of the policies with community organizations such as the ACLU.
  11. Officers must be trained not only in the operation of the body-cam video, but also in all the policies for managing video and using it as evidence.   All this training means officers will, again, spend less time on the street.

Body-worn video cameras for public safety are an admirable technology.   Body-cams for police officers are needed in America today.    And there is almost universal agreement they should be deployed.

But, as with many technologies, the cultural, political, policy and technical impediments are significant.    Communities need to understand all the ramifications, and elected officials need to be ready to pay the costs in resources, dollars and time to enable an effective deployment.

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Filed under Law Enforcement, Seattle Police, video