DOJ Study: Police-Worn Body Cameras Increasingly Recognize Your Face
The government-funded survey shows how these devices can become surveillance tools
A government report on police use of body worn cameras finds they are doing more than filming you. More and more, they’re also likely to try and recognize you.
The study, conducted by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and sponsored by the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, surveyed the burgeoning field of body worn cameras (BWCs) created for and sold to U.S. police departments. It found that built-in facial recognition technology, whether automatic or as an option, is on the rise, as is the ability to instantly determine whether a subject has a weapon.
“Facial recognition features allow the user to identify or verify a person from a digital image or a video frame,” the study’s authors wrote. “There is no indication that these BWC systems will stop proliferating.”
At least nine different device manufacturers either currently allow facial recognition with their equipment or have built in the option for such technology to be used later, the report found.
But while police cameras have the potential to significantly improve police-community relations and police accountability, some privacy advocates caution that their deployment, especially when used in conjunction with facial recognition technology, turns normal police officers into walking extensions of government surveillance.
“A lot of civil rights groups and communities have warned that body worn cameras were going to be used as a tool for police surveillance, rather than as a tool for transparency and accountability,” Harlan Yu, a technologist and principal at Upturn, a think tank that focuses on the intersection of technology, policy, and social issues, told Vocativ.
A recent study by Georgetown Law found that about half of all adult Americans are already in at least one photo database accessible to law enforcement. Various law enforcement agencies’ have access to photos of citizens without requiring warrants — for example, mugshots are usually fair game for police — and at least 26 states’ Departments of Motor Vehicles share their databases with the FBI.
“Part of the allure [to police departments] is not necessarily transparency, but using cameras as evidence collection mechanism that will document crimes and be easier to prosecute, to help their investigations,” Yu said.
An ongoing Upturn study into the country’s largest police departments’ use of BWCs and facial recognition technology found that the vast majority of those departments do have policies in place to guide how they use such technology, and most already employ such devices— but most departments have no policy restricting the use of facial recognition.