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Accountability vs. Privacy: The ACLU’s Recommendations on Police Body Cameras

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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October 9, 2013

Today we’re releasing our policy recommendations on police “body cameras” (also called “on-officer recording systems” or “cop cams”), small cameras that clip on to an officer’s uniform and record audio and video of the officer’s interactions with the public.

This is a technology that, from what we are hearing, is being rapidly adopted by police departments around the country. It’s also a technology that raises a lot of complex policy questions: it has the potential to serve as an excellent oversight mechanism to prevent police abuses, but also a very real potential to invade privacy.

Our basic position is that we support this technology, as long as it is accompanied by a proper policy framework that addresses two tricky but crucial questions around how these cameras will be deployed and used:

  • Will police officers have the discretion to control what the cameras record? If officers can “edit on the fly,” that will destroy this technology’s value as a police accountability tool. Should officers’ cameras be on at all times during their shift, or would it be too oppressive for officers to have every chat between partners in a patrol car recorded, and to worry that recordings will be misused by police supervisors against whistleblowers or union activists? But if they are under officer control, how do we ensure that an officer won’t manipulate the recordings to permit abuse?
  • Are good policies put in place to ensure that these cameras do not invade the privacy of particular individuals, or become yet another vector for mass surveillance? How can we ensure that citizens are made aware that they are being recorded; that video taken inside a person’s home (during a domestic violence call or burglary investigation, for example) or in other sensitive situations does not embarrass someone and cause others to hesitate to call for help? How can we ensure that video of embarrassing or titillating incidents does not get circulated within a police force for laughs, or end up on the internet? How can we ensure that the public has faith that video of their interactions with the police will be strictly handled?

In our brief (5 ½ page) paper, we offer recommendations for how departments should achieve these important goals. We suggest rules for notice, retention of video, the use of recordings, and access to recordings by the subjects and by the public, as well as technological controls for how video data is stored and handled.

We will be watching to see how the technology plays out in the real world, and will revise our position if needed to ensure the right balance between police oversight and Americans’ privacy rights.

The full recommendations are online here.

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