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What if Police Body Cams Get Hacked?

A Los Angeles Police officer wearing an on-body cameras during a demonstration for media in Los Angeles.

A Los Angeles Police officer wearing an on-body cameras during a demonstration for media in Los Angeles. // Damian Dovarganes/AP

They're presented as the policeman's panacea: Body cameras can magically diffuse street violence between officers and citizens. They can perfectly capture, record, and hold all parties accountable for their actions. Got a complaint? Just watch the footage.

Yet, the seemingly easy fix opens the gates to a flood of questions over the cameras' vulnerabilities: How easily can the footage be compromised? Can the cameras be hacked? Is geo-tagging putting officers at risk?

"Anything can be hacked, right?" Artem Haryutunan, a security researcher at Qualys, told The Wire. "It's just a general risk which is always there and which is always associated with technology."

Haryutunan should know: He's one of the researchers who helped discover vulnerabilities in devices like baby monitors — small surveillance cameras of comparable size to the ones police officers would end up wearing.

Still, Haryutunan told us, the vulnerabilities will be directly related to the software used by the companies developing the technology. Depending on the camera, some track footage using a digital evidence room, where officers will have to sign in and tag the videos they'd like to review, while others use a live feed, streaming video that other officers can watch in real time. All cameras will require police chiefs to implement concrete guidelines to camera use, though these guidelines will vary between departments — and between the various technical possibilities different camera brands can offer.

However fast the technology can be developed, the cameras are getting passed out like candy bars. Police officers in Ferguson are now wearing body cameras after two companies donated about 50 cameras to the department, and the town's residentshave started donning them. And just a few weeks ago, the White House petition calling for the creation of the "Mike Brown Law," which would see all police departments in the U.S. outfit officers with cameras, surpassed 100,000 signatures, requiring the Obama administration to respond. Cities around the U.S.—MiamiHoustonAtlantic City—are echoing the call for police body cameras, announcing they'll be pursuing their use.

But in order for the body cameras to be the most effective, the software must be constantly updated, Haryutunan recommends. For added protection, police departments can consult with third party security firms, which can provide stronger barriers and monitor for bugs.

"It's a small computer," he said. "It comes with all the same problems that come with normal computers."

There's also a question of tracking: If we're adding mini-computers to police officers, even if they're unobtrusive, won't we be putting police officers at risk if they can be tracked?

It depends, Haryutunan says, on the software the camera companies use, and the risk is certainly a possibility — at least the same possibility that comes with any other digital device. For example, sites like SHODAN can use metadata to pinpoint locations of devices like cameras and phones, as long as the device is connected to the Internet. Body cameras mostly store the bulk of their recordings in the cloud, and would therefore be susceptible.

"In terms of the technology being able to allow people to pinpoint, that cat's already out of the bag," Romulus Pereira, CEO of Vidcie, a company building body cameras, said to The Wire. "You have radio scanners and police frequency scanners, and there's already enough radio signals, the ability to find anyone at any given time has already been out since cell phone came about."

The bigger issue is privacy, Pereira said. It's an issue camera companies have been tackling since the beginning, because manufacturers must figure out where the recorded footage goes as well as who can access it. For now, the answer issophisticated storage software that can track who watches the footage.

Body cameras, after all, don't capture everything—there would be hours of footage with nowhere to go—and camera companies like Taser have had to find ways to work around this simple technical problem. So far, this has meant having officersthemselves turn cameras on and off — depending on department policy.

Which could mean a number of things. In most departments, the logical rule would be to require police to turn on the cameras when interacting with the public. In others, it could be for the entire duration of select officers' shifts.

But whatever the case, the use of body cameras isn't foolproof. Take New Orleans, for example, where NOPD officer Lisa Lewis allegedly shot a man in the head after a confrontation. Criminal justice writer Radley Balko discussed the incident's possible misuse of body cameras in The Washington Post:

New Orleans officers are outfitted with cameras, but there's no video to verify Lewis's version of events because she says [she] turned her camera off just before the incident. NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas called this a 'snafu.' One could understand if a critic were to opt for another word, like coverup.

Did Lewis deliberately turn off her camera or did her camera malfunction? Either way, hers is one of several cases where the truth about the camera's use is something that, well, can't be recorded.

As Balko pointed out with the case in New Orleans, even with guidelines, not all videos are captured. Some, like the ones retained by the San Diego Police Department, will never be released once an investigation is over, according to the current policy.

YouTube

If it seems counterintuitive to use police body cameras as a tool for transparency and then withhold the actual footage, it is. But cities like San Diego could simply be reacting to the public's perception of police footage — and the aftermath of that perception. Search "police body camera" on YouTube, and the site will reveal a bevy of often gruesome results. As a video gains traction on the Internet, the police departments involved find it hard to contain the attention. That's especially true in Ferguson, where, without the body cameras, much of the footage has come from Vines, tweets, and livestreams produced by the public.

In other words, while camera companies may worry about privacy, police departments might be more concerned with image, at least at first.

"In the PR arena, everybody has a weapon except the cops," Pereira says. "They don't have a comparable tool [for the cell phone camera]."

Body cameras can ultimately do plenty with the right guidelines in place. It can make police activity transparent. It can help officers reveal their points of view and navigate rough PR waters. It can quell public complaints of police misconduct.

"Oftentimes it takes a tragic event like Ferguson that brings [the cameras] to the forefront," Steve Tuttle, the vice president of communications at body camera company Taser, said to The Wire. "I don't think there's a police chief in the United States now that thinks, 'Oh, you don't want body cameras.' These cameras are designed to help the departments. It just takes a little bit of change."

For Ferguson, the cameras will not be enough. The Michael Brown shooting wasn't just about police misconduct — it was about race and the deep wounds that continue to run in American communities.

And that's where the biggest question remains: Can body cameras restore the public's trust in police?

"We're very cautious about saying that cameras are a complete solution," Chris Rickerd, a policy analyst at the ACLU told The Wire. "You need to have good training, a good procedure, and other elements in place to prevent racial profiling."

In fact, the ACLU, which normally condemns recording of this kind, has advocated the use of cameras while recognizing their intrusiveness. ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley wrote that while the organization is against surveillance, "when cameras primarily serve the function of allowing public monitoring of the government instead of the other way around, we generally regard that as a good thing."

More cameras, more transparency, more accountability — they're all steps to reversethe public's wary perception of police. Addressing the larger issues that will inevitably come along with the cameras? That'll take even longer.

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