Police body cameras and the expanding surveillance state

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Gerry Bello's picture

By Gerry Bello

Since the beginning of the recent protest movement around the deaths of multiple unarmed African American men at the hands, there has been a push from both conservatives and liberals for police officers to wear body cameras. That push has been echoed by some sectors of the civil rights movement, from policing advocacy groups, and from the White House itself. Body cameras are actually an addition to existing technology packages sold to law enforcement and have a huge potential to increase the level of surveillance of our day to day lives.

Use of the term “body camera” gives an image of a small digital camera on an officer's chest that acts in the fashion of a camcorder, with a record/play buttons and a limited amount of on device storage. This is a false image. Two of the three leading manufacturers of police body cameras, L-3 Mobile Vision and Motorola, manufacture cameras that by default are connected to cellular devices, automaticly sharing the video into a larger system. The third market leader, Taser International, has an option to automatically connect their body camera to an Android or I-Phone.

In practice a police body camera can constantly records and transmits what is recorded to a central station that can view, access and archive body camera footage. These police command centers can also send video back to the officer, and back up their stored data to the cloud. Taser International's body camera offering, AXON, directly uploads GPS tagged data for police departments, storing it in a company owned cloud computing service called evidence.com. The top of the line AXON model, called the AXON Flex, mounts automatically to Oakley Ballistic Eyewear brand sunglasses.

Both Motorola and L-3 Mobile Vision integrate license plate reading technology into their solution packages for law enforcement. The constant data streaming from police cameras also vacuums up and reads license plates to assess, in real time, threats as mundane as parking tickets and as extreme as the owner being wanted in connection with a crime. . The camera on officer constantly views, transmits and records this data, complete with location and time metadata. This technology is currently deployed on many of the nation's police cruisers running constant checks on all vehicles an officer encounters on patrol.

This cellular potential of the cameras also turns the officer into a WiFi hotspot. The amount of data that can be hoovered up during a single patrol shift is amazing. The processing that happens to that data afterwords is frightening.

Imagine walking down the street and being passed by a police officer. You look up. Your face has just been recorded by the camera on the officer. That image of your face is uploaded to a central database complete with metadata tracking your exact location and the exact time. Your face can then be scanned by facial recognition software. If, for instance, you are sitting in cafe talking with a friend , and an officer walks by, you are now both recorded together. scenarios would seem to be the stuff of dystopian fiction, but the mechanisms are already in place. Your meetings and friendships and social life are now a government record.

The FBI has launched a pilot program to incorporate facial recognition software into its Next Generation Identification system. Within in this system, there is a special list called the Repository of Individuals of special concern (RISC). When described by the FBI, RISC “enables officers and agents in the field to screen detainees and criminal suspects against a repository of Wanted Persons, Sex Offenders Registry Subjects, Known or appropriately Suspected Terrorists, and other persons of special interest for rapid identification.” Thus so-called “appropriately suspected terrorists” and “other persons of special interest” can now be picked out of a crowd. When that image of a crowd is archived in a cloud cloud computing system that “special interest” by the authorities can happen long after the footage of a a person who at the time no criminal history, or even criminal intent, simply walked down the street or had a cup of coffee in public.

The overall technology package associated with body camera programs function like any other large IT contracts. All three major manufacturers feature integrated product lines, scaling, add-ons and maintenance contracts. Some of these maintenance contracts feature cloud backups. Some of the cloud backups can be accessed on a transactional basis. Under this type of structure the company would charge local law enforcement agencies a tiny fee for retrieving tiny segments of video footage from the company's cloud storage. This transactional access could allow each snippet of video to be construed a business record of the contracting company.

The sum total of the proposed body camera solution to the problem of police violence is a regime of constant surveillance by the police not of the police. Rather than stopping and frisking every person walking down the street and checking their papers, this new scheme records everyone via biometric scanning for later identification the instant a police officer's device records them. It creates the basis for a national database that tracks near every movement of nearly every single person in the country. It is not clear how body cameras will reduce or eliminate the problem of police shooting or otherwise killing unarmed and black males. In the cases of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and John Crawford III, videos exists in the public sphere clearly showing what happened, yet in all three cases the policeman who pulled the trigger or tightened the choke is still free to roam the streets.

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