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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Filed Under: body cams, bodycams, hackathon, police, privacy, redaction, seattle

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 2:47pm

    "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?

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