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Law and order
20 August 2013

How the police could turn themselves into human CCTV cameras

Back in June, the Deep End featured an article about Google 'Glass' – a lightweight computer which you wear like a pair of glasses. Among various other features, Glass enables you to covertly record everything you can see and hear as you go about your business (or as stick your nose into somebody else’s). 

In a fascinating piece for the Kernel, Greg Stevens explores the implications of a police force kitted out with Google Glass or a similar device. 

In effect, it would mean turning every officer on patrol into a walking, talking CCTV camera – and surely we’ve got enough electronic eyes watching us as it is.  But Stevens’ argument is that the prime target of such surveillance would be the person wearing the device:

  • “A recent year-long study has shown that when police officers are required to wear cameras, they are less likely to behave badly. Specifically, over the course of the year, members of the Rialto Police Department [in California] were asked to sometimes wear cameras during their shifts, and sometimes not wear the cameras.
  • “Shifts without cameras experienced twice as many incidents of use of force as shifts with cameras. During the entire year when the experiment was being conducted, the total number of citizens’ complaints against the department was nearly one-tenth the number of complaints that were filed the year before.”

The key difference between CCTV and police-worn cameras is that the latter create a public record of what law enforcement officials do and say while on duty: 

This brings to mind the case of the former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell who was accused of verbally abusing a police officer on duty in Downing Street. If the officer in question had been wearing Google Glass, then the truth about who said what to whom could have been easily verified. 

Stevens makes a further interesting point on the issue of privacy:

  • “Privacy is almost always treated as something that is inherently ‘good’, even though we universally reject the idea that a police officer has a ‘right to privacy’ while on duty.”

Because a uniformed police officer is regarded as a public figure, most people would also regard their face-to-face interactions with the police as taking place ‘in public’. This stands in contrast to the existing situation in which conventional CCTV cameras record us as we go about our private business (albeit out on the street). In any case, the direct encounters that we have with the police will often be recorded in some fashion as a matter of procedure, and it would be better for us if the record was a complete and objective one, unfiltered by the memory of the officer(s) in question.

There are exceptions, of course. When dealing with witnesses to – and victims of – crime, privacy  and confidentiality can be of crucial importance. Clear guidelines for the use of Google Glass and similar devices by the police are therefore required.

Just for once, it would be good if the political response to these possibilities stayed one step ahead of the technology.  So, this time, let’s have the public debate before the operational decisions are made.


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