Police accountability advocates often discuss the importance of body cameras being used and worn by police officers. The argument would be that body cam use will lower violence and keep cops accountable, but there is not enough evidence to suggest that body cameras worn by police will do much to help the general public.
Here are five reasons why I believe the mass implementation and usage of body cameras for police are a terrible idea.
1. Facial recognition and expanded surveillance
There is a rich irony present in the statements of police-accountability folks advocating for the use of body cams by police officers. Why? Because they are the same people opposing the expansion of CCTV cameras throughout America’s cities. I am unsure how body cams are not in essence anything more than mobile spy-cams. While a permanently mounted surveillance camera cannot be moved or relocated easily, a body cam worn by a cop at all times is clearly nothing short of a glorified and even better version of a surveillance camera.
While the body cam technology is still largely in its infancy, it is expanding very fast with high-end cameras having many advanced capabilities such as GPS tagging of footage, fast dock recharging and automatic download and storage of footage on a central police-owned server.
These capabilities can be easily expanded to be integrated into NSA’s PRISM program or another FBI program where all footage collected by any cop in America throughout his or her shift could be automatically scanned and tagged by facial recognition software.
Some body cams will also soon have high-bandwidth real-time video streaming capabilities. Such capabilities would allow central governments to easily track activists and persons of interests in real time!
This would be a huge step back in maintaining the civil liberties of activists and Americans involved in street protests. Cops would have the ability to immediately recognize and pull up files on unknown individuals encountered on the street, individuals whom they may have never met before.
2. Real-time tracking of individuals
Pairing the capabilities outlined above with the ability to tag video with GPS coordinates, police will easily be able to locate and track in real time to actual location of individuals of interest, especially during street protests or activities involving opposition to government activities.
Imagine a large anti-tax or anti-police protest taking place in a large metropolitan area where thousands of cops are live streaming video of participants’ faces as they move through the city. Some protesters may not even live there, yet their privacy is still being violated by government agents simply through the use of advanced surveillance technology and video processing.
Worse yet, as a result of participating in such protests and being easily identified, the participants could possibly be harassed in the future by police or other government agents. We have seen this happen on a small scale, but body cameras will expand the possibility of abuse. The attempts to track and identify Americans on a large scale were exposed when the Electronic Frontier Foundation has sued the FBI for the use of tracking and facial recognition records and databases implemented without any congressional oversight.
3. Footage integrity
Another issue of concern with the current generation of body cameras is the difficulty of maintaining the integrity of the footage recorded. Whether the footage is streamed or stored on the device, to my knowledge none of the current devices on the market have the ability to prevent a police officer from turning the device off or erasing and modifying the footage.
These features have not been introduced due to the cost, but also due to the backlash from police unions, who have largely been speaking against the use of body cams as a method to promote accountability.
A well-designed body camera would integrate features that will maintain the integrity and availability of the video by not allowing a cop to turn the camera off and by containing software that automatically provides a cryptographic hash for all the footage recorded. Detailed access logs to the device should be a requirement, and also alerts should be issued when a user attempts to disable the device, open or modify software on the device. These features currently do not exist and it is unlikely they will ever be implemented.
Ideally, if body cameras are truly about keeping our public servants accountable, all video from police officers should be available publicly in real time to anyone wishing to watch what a cop is doing during his employment.
4. Exoneration of police actions
Another problem with video footage is that we have observed many times throughout the years that video footage, no matter how damning it is, will often exonerate cops involved in wrong doing. I have seen footage of cops involved in theft, lying, beatings, rape and even outright murder. In many of these cases the video was largely ignored by prosecutors (who are often former police officers themselves) or by jurors who believe police can do no wrong.
With the nation-wide cost of body cameras running into hundreds of millions of dollars, the question on everyone’s lips should be, “why should we even bother with them if the footage is largely ignored?”
5. They empower crony corporate camera manufacturers at the expense of taxpayers
One of the largest corporations catering to police departments throughout the world is Taser International. The company is mostly known for the manufacturing of their electrocution “stun-gun” devices often known as Tasers which have caused hundreds of deaths in America.
The company has now seen the dollar signs in the body cam market and is pulling all the strings it can to further extort money from the American taxpayers. With revenues of almost $200 million per year, the company is growing very fast due to crony and in some cases, criminal agreements with local police departments, union leaders and police chiefs.
Taser International has quickly become the world’s largest manufacturer and supplier of body cams for police departments. But they have not become leaders in the market through fair competition. Instead the company has carefully cultivated financial relationships and ties with police chiefs throughout the country.
An expose published by CBS news in March 2015 covered questionable practices involving Taser International, including hiring retired police chiefs as consultants and sending them on luxury trips overseas to promote and sell company products.
CBS wrote, “As the police chief in Fort Worth, Texas, successfully pushed for the signing of a major contract with Taser before a company quarterly sales deadline, he wrote a Taser representative in an email, “Someone should give me a raise.”
The police chief in Albuquerque also pushed for a no-bid contract with Taser International, which caused backlash in the community and prompted and investigation by the inspector general. The Albuquerque-Taser contract was worth $1.9 million dollars.
Police chiefs from Salt Lake City, Fort Worth, New Orleans and other cities have all been involved in highly questionable and likely unethical or illegal contract negotiations and signing with Taser International. New Orleans agreed to a $1.4 million contract with Taser for 420 cameras and storage. A year after the contract was signed, the New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas went to work for Taser as a consultant.
The Fort Worth contract for 400 body cams was worth $2.7 million and Jeffrey Halstead, the police chief openly discussed how he would like to also become a consultant for Taser International.
It is clear that the body camera market is not intended to promote fair competitive market where the best product wins and the customer (the American taxpayer) benefits from the product. Instead it is a crony arrangement between police chiefs, union members and corporate executives who are colluding to rip-off the American taxpayers while doing very little to promote true police accountability.
Virgil Vaduva is a Libertarian security professional, journalist, photographer and overall liberty freak. He spent most of his life in Communist Romania and participated in the 1989 street protests which led to the collapse of the Ceausescu regime. He can be reached at vvaduva at truthvoice.com.