Mass Surveillance

The case against police body-worn video cameras

A new investigation by the BBC has revealed a shocking incident in which Thames Valley Police officers made “sickening” comments about a woman, filmed semi-naked with police body-worn video cameras.

The woman was being filmed when her body became exposed while suffering a seizure. Later that shift, officers watched the footage, making degrading comments about her body and “how much money officers would need to be paid to have sex with her.”

This is just the latest incident to shine a light on police body-worn camera misuses and adds to concern about how police surveillance technologies may enable police abuse of power.

Do body-worn video cameras make police more accountable?

Body-worn video cameras were first introduced for police across England and Wales in an attempt to “restore trust,” following the police killing of Mark Duggan in 2011. It was suggested that body cameras would make policing more transparent and accountable.

However, there have been mounting allegations claiming that body-worn video cameras are being used irresponsibly. This includes reports that police turn off body cameras as and when they like, that footage has been lost, deleted or not marked as evidence and that officers have shared footage with colleagues and friends – including in person, via WhatsApp and on social media.

Perhaps most concerning, are allegations that “images of a naked person [have been] shared between officers on email.” This was reported prior to the BBC investigation into the incident involving Thames Valley Police officers, but taken together, points to a wider culture of misogyny and impunity.

The Metropolitan Police claim that video recordings can provide evidence in the investigation of an offence and transparency during stop and searches, or where force is used. But footage is shot from the perspective of police, therefore often does not provide a full or fair picture.

Even when other video evidence is available through footage captured on phones, or CCTV, this does not guarantee accountability. In fact, video footage of police brutality circulates online every day which has not led to justice. So while there remain serious allegations about how police body-cam footage is collected, managed and shared; we must be wary of it being presented as a silver bullet to police accountability and practice.

What are the potential privacy implications of body-worn video cameras?

Police body-worn video cameras raise serious concerns about privacy, particularly where its uses are often more intrusive than conventional CCTV. Body-worn video may be deployed in public, such as on transport, at protests and on the street; but also in private settings including inside people’s homes. This versatility increases the risk of privacy intrusions.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has published guidance on body-worn video uses. They explain, “Before you decide to procure and deploy such a system, it is very important that you justify its use and consider whether it is necessary, proportionate and addresses a particular need. If you are going to use audio recording as well as visual recording, the collection of audio and video needs to be justifiable. The use of BWV therefore requires you to undertake a DPIA (Data Protection Impact Assessment).”

However, in the Data Protection and Digital Information (DPDI) bill currently before parliament, there is a very real risk that requirements for organisations to undertake DPIAs will be scrapped. This will weaken protections created by the GDPR, making privacy breaches through police use of body-worn video more likely.

The DPDI bill will also make it easier for organisations to deny Subject Access Requests (SARs), potentially making it more difficult for people to find out how police body-cam footage is shared and stored.

Crucially, the DPDI bill includes vague provisions for when organisations can reuse or share data without consent. This includes for “national security” or “crime prevention” purposes, therefore could give police a lot of leeway to share videos unnecessarily. With plans to scrap the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner also underway, challenges with body-worn video implementation and misuse will only increase, as oversight mechanisms are stripped back.

Do police body-worn video cameras keep us safe?

While body-worn video cameras may give the illusion of increased safety, they have limited impact on the systemic issues which lead to crime in the first place. From wage stagnation and under-employment, to decreasing life expectancy and increasing numbers of people living in poverty; these are some of the root causes of crime that must be addressed if we are to really build safer, healthier communities.

It is just last year that the Casey Review into standards of behaviour and internal culture found the Met Police to be “institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic.” We must not over-rely on technology to address institutional indictments, when change would be more effectively achieved through examining cultural working practices.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of police body-worn video cameras in crime prevention must not be over-stated and may not always be justified by the cost.

Are they deployed more so in poorer areas where racialised communities often live?

What will happen if the government scraps the biometric and surveillance camera commissioner and the requirements for organisations to do privacy impact assessments?

These failings raise fundamental questions over surveillance as an accountability measure. When there exists a culture of impunity, equipping police with tools like body-worn video cameras will only exacerbate this.

questions remain over whether body-cam footage is ethical, reliable and, in fact, legal.

Body cameras increase surveillance and police budgets to buy more technology, but does not necessarily make policing more transparent or accountable.