Legal Issues

by Tim Cushing

Filed Under:
california, police, recording police


Citizens Looking To Safely Record Interactions With Law Enforcement Have A Couple Of New Options To Consider

from the automated-accountability dept

The ACLU has a "new" app available that allows users to record interactions with the police and automatically upload them to the ACLU's servers to preserve the footage in case the phone is seized… or smashed on the ground.

The app itself is not new, although it is new to California. Previous ACLU apps that serve the same purpose have already debuted in New York (as "Stop and Frisk Watch"), New Jersey (the now-defunct "Police Tape" app that generated 'flash mob' fears all the way across the country in Burbank, CA), Mississippi, Oregon, Nebraska and Missouri.

Each version has been tweaked to comply with local recording laws and presumably more versions are on the way. The Mobile Justice app also provides a handy list of rights citizens have when interacting with law enforcement (subject to law enforcement recognition of those rights, of course) as well as incident forms that can be filled out post-interaction to give the ACLU more detail on the recording itself.

Inarguably, it has been footage obtained by citizens that has blown the lid off police misconduct in this country -- ranging from seemingly routine harassment of camera-wielding citizens to incidents like the death of Walter Scott at the hands of South Carolina police officer Michael Slager, who shot him in the back as he was running away.

If your local ACLU chapter hasn't put together an app to automatically archive recordings of law enforcement interactions, there's another app on the way that will give anyone the ability to capture footage and ensure that, not only will it survive attempts to destroy evidence, but that it will possibly be seen by others as the event unfolds.

[O]ver the course of the weekend, developer Marinos Bernitsas demoed an app that immediately begins recording live audio and video as soon as you tap the app’s icon, but doesn’t actually display the video stream being recorded on the smartphone’s screen.

Meanwhile, instead of having the stream sent out to the public via social networks like Twitter, only designated contacts you’ve previously configured in the app’s settings are alerted to the incident via phone calls and text messages.
Unlike the ACLU's app, Bernitsas' program isn't specifically aimed at police accountability. It's also meant to act as a form of protection against any potentially dangerous interaction. Because it hasn't been crafted with an eye on local recording laws, there's a chance that footage captured could result in charges being brought against the person recording and streaming the incident.

It does have two advantages over the ACLU's app: First off, the app doesn't need to be opened to initiate a recording. Secondly, anyone who grabs the phone will have little clue they're being recorded. The only indicator that anything out of the normal is happening is a red banner across the top of the screen, which may look like nothing more than phone UI customization. The app also makes it possible to capture and stream recordings in areas where coverage is less-than-optimal.
What’s also clever about the app is that even if the user loses their Internet connection, Witness will record video in 10-second chunks and store them locally on the end user’s iPhone. When their connection returns, that video is uploaded to the server.
With the footage going to any contacts the user chooses rather than a neutral party only interested in certain incidents and interactions (like the ACLU), this app holds potential for abuse. One could easily "repurpose" this public safety app to stream sexual encounters, private conversations, etc.

The upside of this downside is that doing so will violate many states' wiretapping laws, which would provide for prosecution of those who use this app for purposes other than what was intended. That the perpetrator creates his or her own damning evidence is helpful and one would imagine captured footage (if still stored at the pass through point) could easily be obtained from Witness' servers with a subpoena. The ACLU notes that footage sent to it is also potentially accessible to law enforcement via subpoenas or other court orders, but does point out that it will fight these requests, rather than simply hand over whatever's requested.

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  • identicon
    Rekrul, 5 May 2015 @ 4:22pm

    Of course, using these apps to record more than a few minutes worth of video will probably blow through the user's data allotment for the month.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 7 May 2015 @ 9:09am


      Another harm imposed by data caps. We could start some campaing:

      Verizon, Comcast, AT&T etc data caps: screw the customer. Even if said customer is attempting to save footage from a crime.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    PRMan, 5 May 2015 @ 4:28pm

    From the article

    "with the New York app, shaking the phone stops the filming"

    What could possibly go wrong?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2015 @ 5:06am

    With the Ferguson app, shooting the phone stops the filming.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 6 May 2015 @ 10:04am

    I think the effort to shine sunlight on police abuse... more important than concerns about subverting these apps for illicit use.

    But then again I'm not a young woman with my dignity to defend.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 7 May 2015 @ 9:05am

      Re: I think the effort to shine sunlight on police abuse...

      I second that. If we let the potential misuses kill anything we'll need to start with very simple things such as kitchen knives. Instead the misuses should be punished.

      Also, if only dignity was the problem with rape... I'll fix your sentence:

      But then again I'm not a woman with my physical integrity and my psychological integrity to defend and avoid spending a life of trauma.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 7 May 2015 @ 11:48am

        Dignity vs. a life of trauma

        I wasn't equating illicit pictures make it online with a life of trauma, and have some pretty large objections to living in a society where those can even occasionally equate.

        Granted, we are really shitty to our women and even slut shaming them for taking birth control. But I think that calls for action to change the society rather than enshrouding everyone in a cloak of perfect privacy.

        We all need to have permission to make mistakes, to be sexual creatures, to be naked where nudity is appropriate and have none of this profoundly affect our lives.

        When this is not the case, it speaks to a culture that is toxic through and through. A culture needs to be purged.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Ninja (profile), 7 May 2015 @ 11:55am

          Re: Dignity vs. a life of trauma

          Ah indeed, I misunderstood your comment at some point. My apologies. I'm wondering where did I take it from but it seems I brought rape into the subject out of my ass.

          Fully agreed with you.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2015 @ 12:09pm

    Hoe can you aim a camera w/o viewfinder?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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