Cops’ body cameras create privacy problems

A New York City police officer demonstrates a body camera. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

How do we keep increasingly high-tech cops from crossing the line into Big Brother?

Privacy watchdogs across Canada are urging cops to develop strict privacy-protection guidelines as some forces prepare to equip their officers with body-worn cameras.

Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, and Fredericton have all announced plans to equip their officers with the lapel cameras and some have already launched small-scale pilot programs.

Calgary is prepped to outfit 1,100 officers with body-worn cameras before the end of the year. Other forces have used them selectively for potentially problematic crowd-control events like pipeline protests in British Columbia.

That extra bit of equipment offers many advantages, say police associations. Aside from the obvious evidence-gathering, they claim the cams decrease the use of force by officers and reduce civilian complaints against cops.

But what about the public? A new joint document published this week from the federal, provincial, and territorial privacy offices outline some of those issues and present ideas on how to avoid them.

Here are the main points:


Are cameras always on?

As far as accountability is concerned, continuous recording is ideal. Nothing is missed and the video is harder to edit. But keeping that REC button on can also inadvertently pick up private information about the public and officers alike.

Most public-sector privacy laws protect officers’ personal information and civilians have their own privacy rights as well. Can a camera stay on during an officer’s break time, or when they enter a private dwelling?

The less time a camera is on, the less private information it records.

The report says: “In general, it will be difficult for [police] to justify the necessity of continuous recording.”

But if intermittent recording is the plan, questions still remain about when the cameras go on and whether officers can control their own cameras.


Keep bystanders off-camera

Cops should aim to avoid recording “innocent bystanders or innocuous interactions with the public,” the report suggests. Since it’s not always possible to avoid recording unrelated individuals, police should use technical means to “anonymize” those people, such as face-blurring and sound distortion where possible.


How long are recordings kept?

Once the cameras are off, police can’t just stash a bunch of DVDs in a filing cabinet and keep them forever, or create a YouTube channel of hilarious arrests. The document says they should store videos on secure and encrypted servers and also limit access to those recordings on a “need-to-know” basis.

Also “strict retention periods should be imposed” to govern how long the recordings are kept.

“Recordings that have not been flagged as relevant to an investigation or potential legal action” should be deleted as soon as possible.

That’s really just the tip of the iceberg as far as police cameras go. Legal issues will keep popping up as cops employ these cameras on a wider basis and privacy law will likely have to evolve in order to handle this emerging technology.

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