Police officers wearing new cameras by Axon, the U.S.’s largest body camera supplier, will soon be able to send live video from their cameras back to base and elsewhere, potentially enhancing officers’ situational awareness and expanding police surveillance.
Rick Smith, Axon’s founder and CEO, has said live-streaming could improve the safety of the public and first responders, especially during emergencies. “Particularly, in these kinds of events like the Boston Marathon [bombing], or the Paris attacks, people aren’t able to start accessing that information until later,” he said in a 2016 interview. “We think that we can bring that to more and more real time.”
Axon plans to test the device, the Axon Body 3, with a group of agencies early next year and ship to U.S. customers in the summer. (The initial price of $699 doesn’t include other costs, like a subscription to Axon’s Evidence.com data management system.) A built-in antenna transmits HD video over dedicated 4G LTE cellular networks, while another feature triggers the camera to start recording and alerts command staff once an officer has fired their weapon, a possible corrective to the problem of officers forgetting to switch them on.
These technologies aren’t completely new: A similar sensor Axon released last year is meant to activate cameras once a weapon is drawn from its holster. And a Silicon Valley startup called Visual Labs has been selling Android-based body cameras with a livestreaming feature since 2016.
Axon’s new camera, which was unveiled with a slick promo video at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Orlando, is part of an effort by Axon to capitalize on the devices that are rapidly becoming standard equipment for officers. Since 2014, when a policeman fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, calls for accountability have led cops to strap on more than 52,000 cameras. The Department of Justice has doled out $58 million to departments, in addition to millions more in local funding, to pay for the cameras and the costlier subscription-based cloud storage used to manage mountains of video. Axon, which rebranded from Taser last year in order to focus on its body-camera business, has come to dominate the market, and has seen its bookings and stock price soar.
But adding new technologies to body camera video introduces new privacy concerns, say legal experts, who have cautioned that a network of live-streaming cameras risks turning officers into roving sentinels for a giant panopticon-like surveillance system.
Harlan Yu, the executive director of Upturn, a Washington nonprofit consultancy that has studied body cameras, says that live-streaming could erode community trust and help enable more controversial technologies down the road.
“The capability to livestream all BWC footage back to a department- or precinct-wide command center… will further entrench body-worn cameras as tools for police surveillance of communities, rather than tools for transparency,” he wrote in an email.
Live-streaming, Yu said, could be a prelude to invasive video analysis tools like automated facial recognition, which is increasingly used to find “persons of interest” on CCTV footage at borders, casinos, and other sensitive areas. In a patent Axon secured in May, researchers described a method for using body cameras to search for faces in crowds in real time, Fast Company reported. Amid privacy concerns and a review by an outside board of ethics advisors, Axon says it is not currently pursuing the technology.
But streaming video from a camera, Yu said, “potentially paves the way for Axon to introduce capabilities like real-time face recognition on body-worn cameras in the future, since it’s much more efficient and cost-effective to perform advanced video analytics techniques, like face recognition, on a central server, rather than on the body camera itself.”
Even without facial recognition, citizens may be more reluctant to speak to police and report crimes if they know they’re not only being recorded but streamed to an indeterminate group of people for unknown reasons, argues Shankar Narayan, the director of the Technology and Liberty Project at the Washington State ACLU.
In 2014 the Justice Dept. warned agencies to “proceed very cautiously” when it comes to combining roving, HD police cameras with tools like face recognition and “live feed,” given potentially “serious risks to public privacy.” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, was more emphatic in 2016: “Police departments should not go down this road.”
The concerns reflect some of the paradoxes at the heart of body cameras, and policing more generally: The devices are defended by officials as tools for public accountability, but cameras are largely seen by the departments that purchase, use, and control them as tools for law enforcement and evidence-gathering. That kind of use, and potential for abuse, may not be acceptable to the public.
While localities and agencies are guided by model body camera policies, there are no federal rules or standards governing how the cameras are used. “The policy of when to turn on the live-streaming functionality is entirely up to the agency,” said Carley Partridge, an Axon spokesperson.
Giving supervisors the ability to live-stream from officers’ chests has raised privacy concerns among police too. Axon’s system does not allow supervisors to remotely begin live-streaming from an officer’s camera unless it is in recording mode–that is, once an officer presses a large button in the center of the camera or is activated automatically by the sound of a gunshot, for instance. The video streams will also be limited to those with permission through the Evidence.com software.
But once recording, high-definition video could be shared with a wide audience instantaneously, heralding an era when the public can view events as they unfold from officers’ chests.
“For example, during a large-scale event such as a bombing or mass shooting, the agency might decide to share that live-streamed footage directly with a news agency in order to help get people to safety or accelerate an investigation,” Axon’s Partridge wrote in an email. “The camera is no longer a passive recording device–it can now share information in real time.”
Streaming body camera footage to the public–or to any other distant screen–may introduce other privacy risks, especially if the footage isn’t redacted, which remains difficult to do in real time. Disclosing live footage would also be a departure from current procedure. The public release of specific videos is typically restricted by a patchwork of local privacy rules and policies. A law signed into law last month in California requires police to publish video of critical incidents within 45 days; in New York City, the police department releases footage at the commissioner’s discretion, while the city’s police union has asserted that video should be exempt from release altogether.
Axon has sought to speed up the process of video redaction, building automated tools that can blur faces and other personal information in videos. The Arizona-based company is also seeking ways to extract that data in order to streamline and automate police record keeping. It’s still the dominant manufacturer of electroshock weapons, but it’s also launched an AI center, which is working on tools for license plate detection, speech transcription, and critical event recognition, all of which could eventually be done in real-time.
Adding face recognition to the mix will be less of a technological challenge than an ethical and political one. Axon’s former head of AI, who left in December, was opposed to real-time facial recognition on body cameras, as is Barry Friedman, an NYU constitutional law professor and a member of the company’s ethics board. “They may decide to do it down the road, and I may disagree with that,” Friedman told me in May. “But they are definitely thinking through some of the problems.”
Axon is no stranger to some of the problems and concerns surrounding modern policing: Its ubiquitous conducted-energy weapons have been the subject of years of controversy and wrongful death suits. The company says that its weapons have been deployed more than 3.7 million times, and have prevented loss of life or serious injury in more over 200,000 instances.
Axon is now seeking ways to improve Taser use. At the police conference on Saturday, the company also debuted a new “reality based” training initiative for Taser customers that will add “empathy training for special populations,” including the mentally ill, and offer officers “tools on how to make strategic decisions when in the field.” In addition, Axon unveiled an new Taser, which it says is more effective than previous models. When it’s docked, the Taser 7’s battery sends data about usage to Axon’s data management software.
“The real power of these devices is realized when they are utilized as a part of the broader Axon network,” Smith said in a statement.
As companies work on police technologies (and social scientists, lawyers, and activists study the impacts), citizens are devising their own tools for police encounters. Last week, a Reddit user named Robert Petersen published a shortcut for Apple’s iOS 12 titled “Police” that, once activated with a click or a spoken command, tells an iPhone to lower a phone’s brightness, turn on Do Not Disturb mode, send its location via text to an emergency contact with a message that its sender has been stopped by the cops. It will also begin capturing video that can later be sent to the emergency contact or to a cloud service.
Petersen told Mic that he got the idea from seeing police interactions in the media. “Sometimes police have body cameras, sometimes not,” he said. “When they do, the video is not always released in a timely manner. I wanted a way for the person being pulled over to have a record for themselves.”
At the end of his Reddit post, he mentioned another possible feature. “If anyone knows of a live streaming service with Shortcuts support let me know and I’ll look into adding it in a future update!”
This article has been updated. An earlier version said that the Taser 7 uploaded data wirelessly; its battery uploads data when docked.