A Tale of Two Cameras

By Daniel Healow

Depending on your views about privacy and police accountability, it may be the best of times or the worst of times. Either way, it is clear that sensors, specifically cameras, have taken center stage as communities seek to objectively reconstruct confrontations between law enforcement and the public.

In what many call the “fastest technology upgrade in policing history”, body-worn cameras (BWCs) are quickly being deployed by police forces throughout the nation, inspiring widespread public support. Although a recent New York Times profile on the rollout of BWCs in Seattle highlighted the growing pains of rapidly deploying new technology, a summer survey found that  70% of Americans support BWCs becoming standard issue throughout all law enforcement. As an added bonus, the cameras appear to be increasing public accountability as well. Studies show public complaints of police misconduct down a whopping 93% in municipalities that have deployed the cameras. So the more cameras the better, right?

Despite the popularity of BWCs, not all camera systems are created equal. In particular, license plate cameras have evoked a sharply adverse response from the public, and even some skepticism from government legal officials. These cameras take an image of a license plate, tag the geographic coordinates of the license plate, and upload the image to a centralized system for processing and storage. While the main purposes that this central system serves in practice are unclear, one function is to track the locations of drivers over time. In fact, one private company has already collected over two billion license plate images that are searchable by its 3,000 law enforcement agency customers. And while civil liberties groups have generally been supportive of BWC deployment (accompanied by certain policies), they have expressed overwhelmingly sharp opposition to the use of license plate cameras. Simply put, the use of cameras to capture, aggregate, and analyze images for active policing is a privacy polar opposite when compared to cameras used to passively record unfolding events. License plate cameras can be used as a policing tool to retroactively track individuals, while BMCs simply show a first-person view of a single point in time. Additionally, the lack of a public dialogue or data surrounding the adoption of license plate cameras means it is not clear to what extent this enhances public safety.

The United States Supreme Court has also shown an aversion to “tracking technologies,” despite consistently finding no cognizable privacy right when an individual (or his or her car) is in plain view of public thoroughfares. In early 2012, the Supreme Court held GPS tracking of vehicle movements constituted a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. Through a public records request, the ACLU later discovered that the FBI put its own license plate camera program on hold in 2012 based on concerns over the legality of the program. Yet, despite public reaction and legal uncertainty, several states continue to utilized these programs, which have even accelerated in recent years from $50 million in federal grants distributed to local law enforcement.

Thus, despite similar hardware, BWCs and license plate cameras illustrate that not all use cases of the same technology are alike. Even BWCs, though generally accepted now, could face added scrutiny if they evolve to collect new types of information or create other unforeseen consequences. For this reason, municipalities must develop thoughtful policies surrounding the capture, storage, usage and destruction of data by law enforcement organizations—regardless of the way that the information is collected. As the recent Seattle BWC program profile notes, the existing legal framework of a given jurisdiction can have unintended consequences, ones the pre-digital world did not anticipate.

Given the realization that a broader perspective on the use of BWCs is needed, what are useful questions to ask before rolling out a new municipal technology?

  1. Capture. How will information be collected? What are possible failure points that could prevent data from being gathered, or even worse, gathered incorrectly? Do data subjects have a reasonable expectation of privacy? If so, based on what source(s) of law?
  2. Storage. What will be the incoming volume of captured data? Are records properly safeguarded with reasoned access permissions?
  3. Usage. For what purpose is information being gathered, and at what point will it have satisfied this purpose? Will it be subject to public records requests?
  4. Destruction. On what schedule will information be deleted?

By thoughtfully enabling new technology through early policy discussion, the hope is that future technology deployments will go more smoothly.

Image Source: Pexels


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