How the cloud helped police warm up to body-worn cameras

The technology for body-worn cameras has been around for years, but it wasn't until this past year that law enforcement agencies have moved to adopt them in significant numbers.

Of course, a big part of the reason was the fallout from several high-profile incidents involving law enforcement's controversial use of deadly force, bookended by the ensuing riots in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, and in Baltimore just last month. These reactions made it clear how important body-worn cameras could be, to the point that the Ferguson police department implemented the devices just weeks after Michael Brown's shooting.

Also contributing to the acceptance of these devices, however, was development of the technology that actually makes them useful namely, secure cloud storage.

If the aim of a camera adorned to the uniform of a police officer is to provide objective context of his or her encounters with the public, then, logically, the footage created must remain secure and untouched. This is in the interest of both law enforcement, which could use the footage as evidence for both prosecution efforts and to exonerate officers who may be wrongfully accused of misconduct, and the public, who would get no value from video footage that an officer accused of wrongdoing was able to access or alter after the fact.

Naturally, cloud storage is a good solution to the problem, particularly as it restricts the officers' access to the files. But for years, asking law enforcement agencies to entrust such sensitive data to the cloud was no easy task. A report (PDF) on body-worn cameras for law enforcement released in September 2014 by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) warned agencies to "consider third-party vendors carefully," and said that many police executives interviewed for the report stressed the importance of entering into a legal contract with the cloud storage vendor.

Steve Ward, a former police officer and the CEO of Vievu, a provider of body-worn camera devices and software, says he saw widespread skepticism until about six months ago, when the company partnered with Microsoft to provide cloud storage using the Azure Government cloud, which meets the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Systems (CJIS) standards.

"Private industry in America, they don't have the same scrutiny as government agencies," Ward says. "We've had cloud-based services, there are a dozen of them out there that any private business can go and store data in, but government is a different animal. And so up until six months ago, a cloud solution that meets FBI standards did not exist. There was a lot of the skepticism. Law enforcement just didn't trust it, it didn't meet the standards that they had to meet, and so they just didn't move that way."

In fact, the FBI announced in 2012 that any cloud service sold to law enforcement agencies must comply with the CJIS security requirements.

Of course, security isn't the only concern when considering storing video footage. While every agency implements its own procedures for filming officers' interactions in the field, the American Civil Liberties Union has urged police departments to implement "a department-wide policy that mandates that police turn on recording during every interaction with the public." PERF acknowledged that some agencies might embrace that approach, but pointed out that some encounters with the public require privacy, particularly discussions with victims or witnesses who may be less inclined to cooperate if their statements are recorded. The "more common approach" is for officers to only activate their cameras "during law enforcement-related encounters and activities, such as traffic stops, arrests, searches, interrogations, and pursuits," the PERF report reads. And in many cases, "policies generally indicate that when in doubt, officers should record," according to the report.

Regardless of the policy, agencies that use body-worn cameras are going to generate a lot of footage. The outdated processes of backing up footage on discs stored at a police department not only erodes the public's trust in such a program as it allows access to the footage it's also a drain on human resources and budgets.

"Prior to that, a police department had to hire staff, had to buy storage space, had to pay somebody to actually go in and physically manage and back up videos regularly, and I think you can imagine just how expensive and time-consuming that is," Ward says.

While the cloud has paved the way for the data-intensive process of managing these cameras, the technology still has room for improvement. Automatic syncing of video footage from the camera to the cloud sounds ideal, but it's simply not practical yet. With Vievu, for example, officers need to bring their cameras back to their department headquarters, manually connect them to a PC, and load the footage to the cloud storage system on their own.

Although the software is designed to prevent officers from tampering with the footage before storing it in the cloud, the process still leaves room for error. Policies may mandate that officers upload all of their footage, but that likely won't stop an officer with something to hide from destroying the device before their immortalizing any incriminating footage. And the fact that concerns over storage costs mean that many officers get to decide when to record what interactions could create an opportunity for a controversy.

If recent developments in law enforcement have made body-worn cameras a must-have, the technology has progressed to make them just useful enough for widespread adoption. The U.S. Justice Department recently announced a $20 million pilot program through which it will fund the implementation for dozens of law enforcement agencies, suggesting that this is becoming more of a reality than a trend in law enforcement. And, as Vievu's Ward sees it, all they needed was a safe place to store all the video.

"The biggest trend in my industry is the CJIS-certified Microsoft Azure cloud that we're working with," Ward says. "It's the game changer, and it's what's going to make everything change in the government sector."


Colin Neagle

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