The Unconventional Case for Body Cameras

| James Van de Velde
James Van de Velde
Adjunct Faculty Member, Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University, and National Intelligence University

James Van de Velde, Ph.D., is an Adjunct Faculty Member at Johns Hopkins University. He can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION — High technology has transformed communications but has done (strangely) far less to advance personal security. Many police reform proposals have advocated for police body cams. But why not individual body cams?

The convergence of wireless technology–cameras, audio and cell phone connections–offers the individual the chance to ‘self-monitor’ (to record oneself all day) to protect oneself to deter or easily solve most crimes (by making sure no one gets away with violent crime). One third of all homicides in America and more than one half of violent assaults are never solved. Private and US government estimates place the percentage of wrongful convictions for crimes allegedly solved at 10 percent. According to the Department of Justice, each American has an 83 percent chance of being involved in a felony sometime in his/her life. If successful, therefore, self-monitoring would result in a huge societal savings and transform society as we know it today.

Encourage A New Counter Crime Paradigm – the Individual as a Collector 1.0

Let your ISP or social network site be your big brother, not just a mail drop. Instead of state cameras, which are limited by the number of static, public places in which the state can place cameras, the individual ought to be so defended by having his/her daily life audio and visually, digitally recorded. And why not? Most department stores, Walmarts, Targets, high-value government facilities, crucial infrastructures, banks, ATMs, and many more facilities today videotape all individuals in or near their facilities every day. The fear of big brother monitoring the public for nefarious political reasons is today quite lessened. Most seem not to mind at all, and the now numerous cases where such monitoring led to the arrest of a criminal has reassured most that such monitoring is overall a very good thing. A 2007 poll revealed that 71 percent of Americans favored additional use of monitoring cameras.

Some of this proposed model exists already by technical accident:  Apple’s iPhone keeps track of where an owner goes and saves every detail to a file on the device which is then copied to the owner’s computer when the two are synchronized. The file contains the latitude and longitude of the phone’s recorded coordinates along with a timestamp.  Google’s Android phone also tracks users.

The social phenomenon of effecting behavior by making it clear that people’s actions are being recorded is well-known. People alter (i.e., calm) their behavior significantly when they know their behavior is being documented. Existing technology can allow an individual to record his/her own environment and send it in real time to a personal data storage account, just as Target does for its corporate concerns. What is missing is an understanding of how it should be best applied.

This model protects privacy best (the individual collects and controls his own information—no reliance on police cams), proliferates collection throughout spaces state cameras could never realistically cover, and adds the power of triangulation and multiplicity in collection to aid law enforcement. It also takes much of the uncertainty out of police work (and of course monitors police work, too).

The Cost of Crime is Staggering

Federal, state, and local governments spend more than $50 billion a year on jails and prisons, according to the Pew Economic Mobility Project. An Iowa State University study revealed that each murder in the United States costs US society $17,252,656! The number reflects not only direct costs—the damaged property and lost careers and prison upkeep and lawyer fees of each murder—but also the broader and more intangible societal costs, such as more frequent police patrols, more complicated alarm systems, and more expensive life-insurance plans.

In 2009 alone, according to FBI statistics, murder cost the United States $263 billion—nearly as much the federal government annually spends on Medicaid. Such costs aren’t limited, of course, to murder. Each burglary in the United States costs $41,288. Each armed robbery $335,733. Each aggravated assault $145,379. Each rape $448,532.

Add to this cost the additional cost of those wrongly accused – the opportunity cost of the victim, the wasteful investigation and prosecution and imprisonment of the wrongly convicted.

The Current Social ‘Paradigm’ is State-Oriented and Needs to Change

Most civil rights activists have the privacy issue backward:  it is not the collection of information that violates the privacy of Americans, it is the lack of information that leads law enforcement to assess imperfectly (i.e., guess) who perpetrated a crime, leading often to the most outrageous violations of privacy, property, and happiness (not to mention waste of money). In addition to advancing a much safer society, protecting children from molesters, defending against kidnapping, extortion, slander and harassment, and reducing the wrongly accused, real money is saved. But there are even more important reasons to wear an individual body cam.

One third of all homicides in America (and far more abroad), and more than one half of violent assaults are *never* solved, and private and US government estimates place the percentage of wrongful convictions for crimes allegedly solved at 10 percent.

In the United States in 2001, 62.4 percent of murders were cleared, 56.1 percent of aggravated assaults, 44.3 percent of forcible rapes, and 24.9 percent of robberies were cleared. These percentages have not changed appreciably in two decades. Given the fact that most homicides are committed by someone who knows their victim, the percentage of unsolved homicides committed by strangers is greater than 50 percent. In blunt terms, if you are attacked in any major city by a random stranger, chances are good that your attacker will never be caught or even identified. If your spouse or child is murdered in a random attack, chances are good that the perpetrator will never be identified or punished.

Brian Cutler and Steven Penrod estimate that out of every 1-million convictions nationally, 5,000 involve innocent people. According to C. Ronald Huff of Ohio State University about 10,000 people in the United States may be wrongfully (or inappropriately) convicted of serious crimes each year. According to the Innocence Projects, based on estimates from academicians, prosecutors, judges, sheriffs, police chiefs, public defenders, those within the innocence movement, and others range from one-half of one percent (1 in 200) to ten percent.

The large number of violent perpetrators roaming the streets today is predominately due to a lack of strong scientific leads (i.e., information). The police investigation model — the collection of clues and interviewing associates — is essentially a 19th century methodology.

The Personal Black Box

In a second-generation service, your recordings could be filtered through a central, government or private database where known and wanted terrorists or criminals could be recognized and a signal could be sent to law enforcement (if one permits) or at least instantly back to oneself. In other words, a real-time warning system could emerge warning all individuals to flee an area and alert law enforcement. That is near, next-generation technology.

Once the personal black box is commercially and socially accepted, the government’s interest in piggybacking on one’s service with a government-supplied biological or nuclear weapons sensor or to filter images through a terrorist or criminal database may be far easier to sell. Without prior social acceptance and recognition of the advantages of such constant monitoring, government requests for citizens to become weapons sensors may not be so eagerly received. The FBI is modernizing its computer fingerprint database and will include palm prints, handwriting, faces, human irises and voices in the new, more advanced system – a personal camera captures three of these unique markers. The difference is, you will control the information.

The device could be used to transform certain inner-city environments where the number of violent and unsolved criminal incidents is enormous. In many such environments, citizens feel helpless and the government is inescapably ineffective.

Further, the device could provide new social networking, which perhaps would allow an information flow of crucial information. For instance, a doctor could be located quickly following a bombing or attack, or a law enforcement officer found nearby following a criminal act. Thus, the proliferation of personal cameras would mean huge sources of information to track who was where. Facial recognition alone might allow real-time alerting of sexual predators, criminals or maybe trusted adults, law enforcement or medical experts.

A Swedish company streams video from your cell phone to your Facebook account now, though the concept seems entirely designed as a social networking addition and not for deterring crime, accident recording, forensics and alike.

For the idea to take shape, all that may necessary is:

  1. hardware to host an HD video camera;
  2. software (an app) to stream the feed to your account;
  3. a service to hold the video feed (ideally free like YouTube, e.g., ‘GotYourBack’ or ‘YouFeed’).

The challenges are more or less esthetic, which is not to be underestimated, and branding – to eliminate the creepy factor – is something also not to be underestimated.

Legal Issues:  None, Really…

Currently it is not illegal to record yourself in most environments:  at home-anywhere, in a Starbucks, in a department store, in a restaurant, at a grocery store, walking in a parking lot, walking down the street, entering most public areas of private facilities, or in your car. There are some legal grey areas, however, such as bathrooms or sensitive rooms, laboratories and other private facilities. Digital voice recorders for the office have been around for many years and can record over 24 hours of audio on one charge. The social and legal norms of not recording in a bathroom or sensitive facilities are already known, intuitive, or working their way through the court system. It will not be much of a societal acceptance stretch, therefore, to have essentially the technical equivalent of a voice/video recorder always on either separately, or a part of your wearable cell phone. A notion of ‘no presumption of privacy in public spaces’ will emerge – a legal standard that, in fact, exists today. In other words, there are no legal showstoppers to adopt this technology.

All technological advances are followed by the development of new societal norms and legal clarifications to permit their use. Although this will no doubt occur with recording oneself all day every day, it will not require any reduction in privacy rights or new laws. Like with email, norms will emerge to govern its appropriateness in special cases and legal use.

It’s Good Business

Can an industry advance the convergence of existing technology to demonstrate a device that consumers might wear … which would lead to the savings of billions of federal, state and local (not to mention industry) dollars? It would not be the first time a technology devised by industry transformed society – but in this case, it would deter crime, improve society, defense against the wrongly accused and advance good governance.

Read more exclusive expert-driven insight, perspectives and analysis in The Cipher Brief

The Author is James Van de Velde

James Van de Velde is an Associate Professor at the National Intelligence University as well as Adjunct Faculty at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the US Government, the Department of Defense, or the National Intelligence University.    

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