Offer of free body cams raises stakes for transparency

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Smile, you’re on camera!

We won’t say “Candid” Camera like the old television, because there’s nothing unusual about being photographed at any time or any place, from walking along the street, to shopping to our own homes.

And these days, that image is just as likely to be broadcast over the Internet as stored away for later viewing by a few people.

One of the popular YouTube subjects is dashcam video from Russia and other countries where most drivers use them as evidence in insurance claims.

High-profile police cases such as the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting and riots have pushed police body cameras forward as a tool of accountability, but it didn’t take long for them to show their limitations.

Who decides whether they’re turned on or off?

Where is the data stored, and who has access? Should it be recorded locally or on the cloud or even live streamed?

Local governments, law enforcement agencies, camera companies and courts are still sorting those issues out.

Taser International, which already has a relationship with 17,000 police departments through its electric stun gun business as well as most of the body cam business, upped the ante Wednesday by announcing that it was changing its name to Axon and offering every police department in the United States free body cameras plus free software and data storage for one year.

The company isn’t in business as a charity, of course; it actually makes more money from its cloud service, Evidence.com, which requires police to purchase yearly subscriptions.

One only as to look to Google and the huge amount of information it controls through applications such as Google Maps, Google Earth, Gmail and many others to image the information that could be gleaned from thousands of hours of body camera footage.

Axon CEO Rick Smith says facial recognition technology is coming in the near future, and the company recently purchased two artificial intelligence firms to sift through the data gathered.

Civil libertarians who were concerned about systems that automatically scanned license plates of passing cars are naturally be worried about the mountains of data body cams are collecting.

Axon will argue that data and the algorithms used to collect it are trade secrets, but denial of access is sure to be challenged by defense lawyers, media and others.

We’ve used this space to discuss the problem that electronic records are more easily withheld from the public, and that’s even more likely to be the case with data stored in Axon’s cloud.

If it is used to prosecute alleged criminals or if it contains evidence of police misconduct, the public must have free and open access.

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