Seattle PD Holds Hackathon To Solve Body Cam Footage Redaction Problem

from the putting-privacy-back-into-'no-expectation-of-privacy?' dept

Behold. The future of law enforcement.

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) held its first-ever hackathon on Friday. The event was focused on a single problem: How to redact the video streams recorded by police officers from their dashcams and (soon) body-worn video cameras.

This hackathon was inspired by a local privacy activist formerly known only by his email address ( and his FOIA request for every Seattle PD body cam recording in perpetuity. By leveraging transparency against privacy, the activist hoped to achieve a better balance of both — but for a few moments, it looked like the only thing that would suffer damage was accountability. The expansive request caused the city to rethink its decision to put cameras on its cops. Now, the camera program is again moving forward, and with the activist’s help.

No completely workable solution presented itself during the five-hour event, but progress was made towards achieving this balance. Many of the projects presented performed automatic blurring of persons encountered by police and offered rudimentary auto-transcription of recorded audio. Timothy Clemans — the activist who is now working with the police to solve their redaction problem — has a demonstration of his own prototype hosted at his website. He also voiced his support for police officers and suggested the default settings for FOIA’ed video.

Clemans… stated that most of the work done by police officers is saving lives through CPR or calmly working with drunken or angry citizens, yet the public rarely sees that on video. He also urged a report where all video would be initially over-redacted – essentially the whole frame is blurred – and then the news media or activists could ask for less redacted versions of the video of interest.

Although solid progress was made, there are a few caveats. First, as Marcus Womack of points out, the job can never be solely trusted to an automated process. Anything deemed “sensitive” would still need human review before release. Secondly, many of the tools demonstrated have their own limitations, like text-to-speech programs that only recognize English and the fact that much of the recorded audio is less than pristine.

Finally, whether privacy activists like it or not, there’s not going to be a whole lot of redaction happening once the camera program is underway.

Seattle Police officials… admitted that about 90 percent of the video officers create probably needs no redaction at all. That’s because members of the public have no right to expect privacy in their interactions with police, unless they are juveniles or a witness or victim whose safety might be at risk if their identity is known.

Now, we just need the police to remember this 90 percent rule. With the police wearing body cameras and the public carrying cellphones, the playing field is as level as it’s going to get. This means whatever lack of privacy the public is expected to deal with goes double for camera-wearing cops — and this means no intimidation tactics, B.S. obstruction charges or seizing of cameras as “evidence.” I only mention this because Seattle’s law enforcement officers haven’t proven themselves any more accepting of public recording than other PDs around the nation.

But the overall good news is that the body cam program is back on track and the Seattle PD actually seems interested in making it work for the betterment of everyone — not just those wearing the blue.

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Comments on “Seattle PD Holds Hackathon To Solve Body Cam Footage Redaction Problem”

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Anonymous Coward says:

“That’s because members of the public have no right to expect privacy in their interactions with police, unless they are juveniles or a witness or victim whose safety might be at risk if their identity is known.”

In their own homes? In their fenced backyard? How do the police or any reviewer know if a random person clearly visible in the background has a stalker ex-boyfriend? Will bystanders be blurred out even if in public?

Quantum Mechanic says:

Re: Re:

I agree, there are major assumptions behind that statement which do not stand up to scrutiny. Simply being in the field of view of a copcam is not what a normal person would consider an interaction.

The idea of redaction is really wrong-headed all around. There is so much identifying data in such footage, it isn’t just faces, it is clothing, it is gait, it is skin color. And they are only talking about redacting FOIA releases, keeping the original footage for whatever internal purposes they can come up with. That’s a guarantee for systemic abuse.

Surveillance is basically a force multiplier and the state already has tons of force to begin with. So even if the citizenry and the state have equal access to cop-cam footage, the end result will still be an increase in the imbalance of power between the state and the citizens.

Todd Shore (profile) says:


If someone says, “Yes, you may enter my home IF you turn off your camera” in a case where a warrant would normally be required what is the procedure?

Do they not enter? Do they turn off their camera? Do they enter pretending their camera is turned off and then deal with the lawsuit later? What happens if while in the home the person that gave them that conditional approval discovers that their terms are not met and forcibly removes the officer from the premises?

Justin Johnson (JJJJust) (profile) says:

Re: Caveats

A search by conditional consent has been held to be invalid by state courts where the conditions were knowingly not met. Therefore, the intelligent thing to do would be to obtain a warrant.

As for the last question, a search undertaken by consent is generally revocable at any time for any reason and upon revocation the search must stop unless during the search probable cause has developed. A forcible removal would complicate things a bit though.

Todd Shore (profile) says:

“where the conditions were knowingly not met” is the key phrase. It means knowledge on the part of the person giving consent, not by the state official, though it will certainly be argued otherwise.

Police have heard the “police may lie” too many times and they are getting into the habit of thinking that applies at all times.

Justin Johnson (JJJJust) (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Actually, it means the opposite of what you say.

Searches are presumed to be unreasonable and the burden of proof to show that consent was given falls on the prosecution.

As the conditions are imposed by the individual giving consent, the officer must not claim to meet conditions imposed when he or she knows that claim to be false.

Giving permission to search is a waiver of the Fourth Amendment and such waivers are only valid when given voluntarily and it is generally not voluntary when the consent is gained through deception or coercion.

Me in Seattle says:

Now whenever you have a cop approaching you, you will also have thousands of deranged, hostile anons approaching you, because they are all watching through the body cam.

Any interaction at all you are forced to have with police may “go viral”, and any number of people will be targeted for stalking because a random interaction with police put their insufficiently redacted video on the Internet. Whereupon the police will do nothing about it.

Instead of police harassing minorities, the formula will become, come up and video them, then let the Internet harass them.

Meanwhile the ability to do police work drops to zero, because people stop saying anything to them at all.

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