One morning last April, SWAT teams swarmed a house in Henry County, Georgia. A gunman had taken his girlfriend and her teenage son hostage. But some of the officers weren’t only equipped with live ammunition: They were live, sending video from smartphones that were mounted on their chests back to a nearby command post where supervisors huddled over laptops. In two of the streams, the supervisors saw SWAT officers wounded by gunfire. Another stream, from a phone dropped into a window, offered audio of what was happening inside. When the police used a robot to deliver another phone to the gunman, that was also secretly streaming video. By the time the standoff was over, 17 hours later, the gunman had killed his hostages before fatally shooting himself. And a new technological era had begun.
“We were able to verify the gunman’s and officers’ locations, and gather more intelligence because we were live-streaming,” says Randall McGlamery, the police department’s spokesperson. Henry County, which adopted the technology in 2017, is one of the first of a growing number of police agencies using live video to remotely monitor encounters from the vantage point of officers’ chests. “If you’re in a chase or if you’re in a flight or if we think something’s wrong, we can tap in live, and in real time know what’s happening remotely, and report to other people what’s going on,” says McGlamery.
The technology also heralds other new tantalizing police-enhancing tools, he adds: “I think we’ve just touched the bottom level of what is going to happen in the future.”
After a series of high-profile police shootings in recent years, public demand for stronger police transparency and accountability has helped lead governments across the U.S. to spend millions of dollars putting body-worn cameras on officers. Now, advances in hardware and data connectivity are supercharging the devices with features that promise a new set of police powers, and a new set of questions.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and to see that advance in technology is phenomenal,” says Sergeant Steve Saunders of the Cincinnati Police Department. “The ability to tune in—that’s a game changer.”
In February, Cincinnati said it had the largest fleet of live-streaming cameras anywhere: Nearly 1,000 of its officers can stream video from their chests, using devices made by Axon, the body camera and electroshock weapons giant formerly known as Taser. The cameras rely on LTE connections to transmit video over the internet; once an officer puts their camera into recording mode, authorized users are permitted to tune in through a cloud-based platform.
According to Saunders, live video could have helped police commanders during an active shooter situation at a bank building downtown last year answer questions faster, like, “is the threat just in the lobby of the building or did they get into the tower?” Extra eyes on a scene could also help officers during tense or risky encounters.
Saunders and others believe that streaming might also make citizens feel more comfortable interacting with police officers if they knew their encounters were being monitored by a third party in real time.
Eventually, mental health workers could even tune in in order to help police evaluate and speak with people in emotional distress, he mused, and “could potentially be another asset to us in the field,” says Saunders.
Live video “is a feature that agencies are increasingly making required for officer safety reasons,” says Alex Popof, CEO of Visual Labs, which doesn’t sell its own hardware like Axon but helps departments turn smartphones into streaming-ready body-worn cameras. The startup says it is working with more than 100 law enforcement agencies, including Henry County and Fontana, California, as well as the security teams for the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens.
Axon says that a handful of departments in the U.S. are using its new cameras, which can cost as much as $699 per device. That doesn’t include other costs, such as a subscription to the company’s Evidence.com cloud-based data management platform. But as part of a 10-year, $26 million contract with Axon, Cincinnati will go all in on its ecosystem of connected technologies: cameras that activate when an officer draws a weapon, automatic transcriptions of audio, video redaction tools, and new Tasers. The department is also considering adopting a new app for streaming live video from aerial drones, called Axon Air, based on a partnership with drone maker DJI. “We’re looking at it for search and rescue operations,” says Saunders.
From a real-time crime center, Cincinnati police commanders would eventually be able to tap into body camera and drone footage, in addition to live feeds from hundreds of existing neighborhood surveillance cameras. “Having that situational awareness as a field commander is unprecedented,” Saunders says. “But I also think it’s so new for us, we still haven’t really figured out what it’s going to mean for us in the future.”
There are also unprecedented questions about what this technology means for the public. A connected network of cameras providing up-close, real-time images from the street or inside buildings or homes raises civil rights concerns that pre-recorded video and stationary surveillance footage does not. Experts caution that streaming live police video could also expose sensitive footage to abuses like leaks and hacking. And live video risks transforming tools that are intended for transparency into roving, on-the-ground nodes in a growing web of surveillance technologies.
“Police body cameras were never supposed to be like another kind of surveillance camera; they were supposed to be an oversight mechanism,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union. “The danger is that by streaming to a centralized location, they become much more like government surveillance and less like oversight.”
Streaming video nudges the devices into more Orwellian territory.
Streaming video nudges the devices into more Orwellian territory and “transmutes police body cameras into a significant new surveillance technology,” says Stanley. “Among other things, streaming is a step that eases the pathway towards live real-time face recognition,” a scenario that could violate Fourth Amendment protections and lead to dangerous misidentifications. “Unless you load a photo set onto a device, you’re going to have to be relying on the cloud, which means streaming.”
Axon uses facial-detection software to help police redact faces in body camera footage, but the company has said it would pause development of software for recognizing those faces, citing the concerns of an ethics panel it assembled. Axon’s former head of AI was also opposed to real-time facial recognition before he left the company, and a handful of U.S. cities have passed ordinances that ban or restrict the use of automated surveillance tools such as face recognition by police.
But Axon hasn’t ruled out using the technology in the future and has even secured a patent for it. “They may decide to do it down the road, and I may disagree with that,” Barry Friedman, a constitutional law professor at New York University and a member of the ethics panel, told me in 2018. “But they are definitely thinking through some of the problems.”
For now, in any case, the company cannot prevent police departments from already combining video from its cameras with a growing array of facial-recognition tools. Such software can easily be applied to pre-recorded video, and both Amazon and Microsoft sell cloud-based recognition tools to law enforcement for that purpose. Third-party apps like Clearview AI, designed to ID individuals using a phone’s camera, could allow police to attempt to identify people passing an officer’s body camera in real time.
“I think all of these surveillance technologies will raise the stakes of all the others,” says Stanley. “A technology like face recognition makes it more important to put limits on a technology like streaming.”
Even as body cameras have been widely adopted—tens of thousands have been sold in the U.S.—there are no national standards regarding them. Many cities have laws that govern how they’re used, who can access the footage, and how it’s released, but most of those rules were written before the introduction of live video. In a 2014 report, the Justice Dept., which has spent tens of millions of dollars to help departments buy body cameras and cloud storage, advised agencies to “proceed very cautiously” when it comes to combining police cameras with features such as face recognition and “live feed,” given potentially “serious risks to public privacy.”
In Cincinnati and Henry County, the tech has stoked more immediate anxieties, but not from the public: Even if streaming only works when a camera is recording, police officers themselves worry about supervisors tuning in to scrutinize their every move. “When you tell somebody I have the ability to live-stream at any moment, they’re going to have privacy concerns,” says McGlamery.
The growth and normalization of surveillance may not be a strong argument for more of it.
In Cincinnati, where the police are already using live-streaming on a case-by-case basis, there is no specific policy around the feature yet. Saunders acknowledges the public’s concerns about real-time face recognition—”everyone’s going to deal with that in some way in the future,” he says—but reckons that live-streaming on its own does not pose the same risks.
“We’re on scenes all the time where citizens are live-streaming on Facebook Live or Twitter,” he says. “We just have a new app that came to town, the Citizen app, that lets people upload video, so it’s just the way technology has gone. People have home surveillance cameras like the Ring video doorbell, or other things that they can upload and put on Facebook in minutes, let alone live-stream stuff.”
But the growth and normalization of surveillance may not be a strong argument for more of it. Police departments and municipalities may also be helping to foster that kind of surveillance culture by partnering with Amazon-owned Ring to help promote its devices and to streamline the collection of neighborhood videos. (Cincinnati’s police department has asked citizens to register their home surveillance cameras as part of its camera network, but it is not a Ring partner.) Meanwhile, growing calls for legislation around surveillance show that the public does care about who uses these kinds of technologies and how they fit together, says Stanley.
However, in many cases, including in Cincinnati, police are using tools like live streaming before formulating written policies, or before they have notified the public, much less sought its input. When it comes to tools like streaming, Stanley says, “the community should not only be informed but should be asked if they want departments to have that capability in the first place.”