Body-worn video rips fabric of trust.

A number of British police forces are rolling out body-worn video (BMV). Officers are able to record audio and video of their interactions with the public, providing what many consider to be valuable additional evidence to corroborate police statements in court. Of course, it cuts both ways and defendants can support a case against an officer’s testimony.

Used in some European countries, BMV systems are also deployed in parts of the USA, with the first arrest on record using evidence from Google Glass worn by a police officer who had been able to stream his view of an incident back to his HQ (New Scientist).

The American Civil Liberties Union has given a measure of backing. They recognize a tension between giving officers control of the record button but not being in a position to edit on the fly – leaving a partial record of an incident that suits their purposes.

There are multiple issues around BMV but if a system were ‘always-on’ the volume of data gathered on a shift could be stored but would scoop up information about people going about their lawful business, especially if police are making enquiries door-to-door. From the police side it is easy to envisage a chilling effect on officers’ freedom of discretion. It’s not a bad thing that police supervisors (and the historical record) aren’t always breathing down a professional officer’s neck.

Perhaps even more concerning is Mike Tonge’s observation that BMV could diminish trust in uncorroborated police testimony. If people assume the availability of a video record then what about those occasions when none was made? (The Guardian) We will lose something rather important if no police officer’s word is trusted. This is not to say that every officer is invariably truthful – just that the fabric of trust we rely upon receives yet more rips if corroboration by video evidence becomes our assumption of normality.

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CCTV in taxis – Edinburgh plans

Edinburgh taxi drivers are campaigning to be permitted to install CCTV in the back seats of their cabs. The Evening News gives a lot of space to the taxi drivers’ association and support form a number of city cab firms. The article does note serious reticence, even opposition from a couple of organisations but the wider dimension is sadly lacking.  It took me just a couple of minutes to search for aspects that ought to have been included in the article:

  • Oxford taxi drivers (in May 2013) opposed compulsory audio-visual recording within their cabs, BBC.
  • Southampton City Council are, in July 2012, required by the Information Commissioner to stop recording passengers’ conversations in the back of taxis.
  • Some insurance companies are said to be offering considerable discounts on premiums to taxi firms that install CCTV (pointing inside and outside the cab) – see FleetNews report.
  • GMB Union is reported (September 2013) to have written to Sheffield City Council in protest at plans for compulsory installation of CCTV in taxis – see BBC News.

Whilst it’s not yet clear to me  what the Edinburgh scheme would involve (are they envisaging always-on audio and video recording?) the taxi-cab industry is clearly divided and, as usual in surveillance matters, there are other vested interests in play. Quite what the Office of the Information Commissioner will have to say – given the ruling against Southampton – will be worth reading.

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“Cheese”: Tesco face detection

Tesco have announced the roll-out of “OptimEyes”, a  detection system at forecourts that presents advertisements tailored to the customers in the queue. The Guardian ran a piece the other day seeking to quell the “needless surveillance panic” that the Tesco announcement had begun to generate.

“OptimEyes” is not facial recognition (as we find it at a number of airport border controls) but facial detection. It is not attempting to match up personal information to specific customers. Rather, it is identifying features that suggest gender and age of a customer.

“Well that’s alright then” is the tone of the article. Then you notice that, at least on the online version, the article is in a stream identified as “in association with Salesforce Marketing Cloud“.  This is a company specialising in marketing campaigns on Facebook and Twitter. The reassuring tone of the article has to be read as a contribution by insiders of the advertising industry.

It’s not alright – because it is one more step in our being made accustomed to surveillance technologies that are intent upon influencing our behaviour. OptimEyes is indeed not a facial recognition system. Nevertheless, it ought not be considered in isolation from the much wider cultural phenomenon that is mass surveillance.

Just as no one is an island, no surveillance technology stands apart from its context.

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