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Police Cameras: The Secret Economy

Wearable police cameras require expensive servers and lots of cloud services. Here’s a look at the secret police tech economy.

Police Cameras: The Secret Economy

On the morning of Monday, August 31, police officers in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley went on the beat with something new: wearable body cameras. Over the next few months, the Los Angeles Police Department will outfit its more than 7,000 patrol officers with wearable cameras mounted on their chest. But while the public is naturally focused on the potential of the cameras to document possible wrongdoing, there’s a hidden tech challenge: Wearable body cameras create massive amounts of data, and a huge industry has popped up to deal with the need.

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Because footage from body cameras needs to be backed up and retained for long periods of time in many cases–think of a police brutality case that does not go to court until a year after the initial incident–police departments need to use either dedicated servers and hard drives or cloud services to store all that data. Large vendors such as Microsoft and Taser offer cloud storage for police body cameras, and the storage doesn’t come cheap.

The Law Enforcement Cloud

Law enforcement isn’t a natural target market for cloud services. Cops tend not to use Evernote or Dropbox. There is both a tendency to avoid services perceived, rightly or wrongly, of being insecure and a natural inertia that favors services that have already been used. However, technological advances mean police departments have little choice but to seek out more and more storage.

To give one example, the police department of Oakland, California, began testing cloud storage this winter. Oakland uses cloud storage to keep data from more than 600 cameras for five years, and switched to cloud storage in order to lower costs. According to Government Technology, a trade publication, Oakland’s police department requires approximately seven terabytes each month in storage space, while also needing much of that photo footage to be accessible as needed.

Payday For The Tech Firms

This means big money for the companies offering storage services. Because of specialized CJIS requirements (which stands for Criminal Justice Information Services, a series of strict guidelines set up by the FBI), only a limited number of companies service law enforcement with storage space for body camera data. But for those companies that are willing to comply with the strict compliance regulations, there are considerable financial rewards.

One of the two largest companies serving the space is Taser. The company, which has a large share of the police body camera market thanks to being one of the first companies to produce them, acquired a startup called Evidence.com several years ago. Evidence gradually evolved into a sort of cloud storage space for body camera storage that is sold to law enforcement agencies on the basis of easy setup and turnkey access.

But police departments pay a big fee for that sort of convenience. According to a Justice Department report, the city of Mesa, Arizona, was charged $93,579.22 for one year of video storage with Evidence.com, with that cost dropping to $17,799.22 the next year. Prices vary based on a law enforcement agency’s specific needs and the sort of deal they are able to negotiate with a vendor.

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Alongside Taser, Microsoft is the other big player in the space. Last year, Microsoft partnered with a camera manufacturer named Vievu to build Vievu’s cloud storage service on top of Microsoft’s Azure Government Cloud. The company intentionally made its cloud product compliant with CJIS requirements, which allow local law enforcement agencies to share data with the federal government.

Richard Zak, Microsoft’s director of justice and public safety solutions, told Fast Company that each camera can capture more than 500 gigabytes of video and photo footage each year. “That’s a lot of video when you put officers on the street each day,” Zak added. “Retention policy for law enforcement in the past was to keep it for 30 days; now it’s a year or even longer, depending on how long they need to keep data.” He noted that, in many cases for law enforcement, “the cloud is being used to support the massive growth of video.”

The Future

Expect tech companies to enter the cloud storage for law enforcement space even more aggressively in the future. The need for storage became so important that the city of Wichita, Kansas, even proposed selling a police helicopter to pay for video storage costs.

The federal government is also giving Microsoft, Vievu, Taser, and other players a helping hand. This spring, the Justice Department announced that it was investing $20 million to help law enforcement agencies acquire body cameras, with much of those funds going toward law enforcement in small communities. As adoption rates for police body cameras jump in coming years, a lot of police departments and county sheriffs will be using cloud storage as well.

During our conversation, Zak said the past year was the turning point for law enforcement using cloud services. “A year ago, if you asked a large city police chief if they would use the cloud, they’d probably say no. Now, they would say of course we are. That happened in one year, and video is the number-one driver taking agencies beyond infrastructure and into cloud.”

Meanwhile, other cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services and IBM are believed to be looking at toeholds in the space. As body cameras document cases of police misbehavior and prevent false allegations against police departments, they’re also turning out to be very profitable for the tech world.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Zak’s last name.