Why cops, cameras and the cloud aren’t a panacea for anything

Although the idea of police officers video-recording their encounters with citizens has some claiming a small victory in the quest for better transparency, the issue isn’t that simple. Yes, video could provide invaluable evidence in some situations, but it could also provide evidence without context and fertile ground for privacy invasions.

The New York Times (s nyt) on Tuesday published both a story describing Taser International’s new video system for police officers, a wearable video camera that sends the video to the cloud (Amazon Web Services (s amzn), to be exact), where it’s then stored. As the story and a subsequent blog post by author Quentin Hardy point out, the pitch from Taser is that video evidence of what actually transpires will help exonerate cops who act responsibly, while advocacy groups think it might help convict those who abuse their power.

However, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of this type of system. Certain policy concerns jump to mind immediately, such as the deletion of files by either police departments and/or Taser to hide evidence (something the cloud might make more difficult to detect during the discovery process). Additionally, as the Times article notes, officers could turn the cameras on and off selectively. In a city like Las Vegas, where police fatally shot 12 citizens in 2011, many might wonder why cameras aren’t automatically recording whenever an officer pulls a gun.

Who will watch the watchmen?

But there are bigger issues to consider as a result of the cultural and technological shifts at play in Taser’s new system and the increasing prevalence of police body cameras of all types. One is the idea that more cameras will mean better behavior and increased civility because everyone knows they’re being recorded, something a member of Taser’s board points out in the article. However, citizens aren’t yet going about their daily lives with audio- or video-recording equipment strapped to themselves, monitoring their every interaction. And although a great number of citizens have video cameras on their cell phones, few people being questioned by the police would be brave enough to pull one out and start recording (and state law might not allow doing so covertly).

Even onlookers, who generally have every right to record public events, might think twice about doing so lest they risk bodily harm or arrest. If prosecutors, jurors or the public believe the camera doesn’t lie, then perhaps that lone officer-recorded snippet becomes becomes their truth. The camera doesn’t lie, but, as the Zapruder film has taught us, a single camera capturing a segment of an encounter from a single perspective might not tell the whole story (see page 31).

A database of faces

Actually, storing video in Amazon’s cloud should give privacy advocates the chills, too. Paired with cheap storage and new facial-recognition tools, authorities — or Taser — could begin analyzing video and creating their own databases. Analyzed against other databases, or even publicly available Facebook pictures, police departments and technology partners could use video as the jumping-off point for some pretty advanced identity analysis.

As recent privacy backlashes against Google (s goog) and Target (s tgt) highlighted, it’s not always that organizations have our data that’s the problem, but what they can do with it (an ethical line we’ll be discussing at Structure: Data next month in New York). The Supreme Court recently sidestepped this issue with regard to law-enforcement agencies, but a couple of the justices hinted that the ease with which agencies can collect data on citizens might warrant a change in how we define Fourth Amendment privacy. Once its evidentiary utility has expired, video is just one more data type waiting to be analyzed, but it’s one that can literally put faces to names and names to faces.

Perhaps the debate over web privacy can offer some guidance as police departments, their contractors, legislators and judges start consider when and how this type of video should be used. By now, web companies know three things for sure: more data is always better when trying to determine the truth; clear policies up front (and adherence to them) can save a lot of problems down the road; and citizens want some sense of control, too.

Cops having cameras is a good thing, but without some rules, checks and balances in place, video is far from a cure for all that ails the interactions between officers and suspects, and it might even create a new set of problems.