Body Cameras in the Military – A Challenging but Perhaps Necessary Technology

For government agencies, like the military and the police that depend on maintaining the trust of the public and experience profound litigious scrutiny over their conduct during violent encounters, the use of cameras and sensors to record their actions may no longer be an option – but something mandated.

Body-Mounted Cameras and the Police

On March 3, 1991, George Holliday, a bystander using a personal video camera, videotaped the interactions between Rodney King and members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Nearly 25 years later no one knows exactly what happened to Freddie Gray during his incarceration by the Baltimore Police. How is it that after the LA riots, sparked by the Rodney King incident, police departments nationwide were not mandated to record every single interaction with the public? One answer lies in the resistance put forth by police unions worried that embarrassing or unprofessional footage would make its way into a public forum where it may be manipulated to paint a picture of abuse, ineptness, or brutality. Another reason why body-cameras did not suddenly flood police departments is because the cameras themselves and the back-end IT infrastructure required to store this footage and allow for easy search did not yet exist. The cost to adopt this technological solution over the past three decades was prohibitively high.

The recent public outrage due to the perception of misconduct of the police in Ohio, Maryland, Missouri, and elsewhere has increased calls for surveillance of individual acts of policing. As a result, the Justice Department recently announced it will spend $20 million on police body cameras nationwide. President Obama has also made calls for increased spending on these systems. A tipping point for large-scale adoption has appeared with more police departments supporting the use of these cameras and the cost to adopt this technology declining rapidly.

Cameras and Sensors in the Military

In the military, the public and Congress provide greater lenience in requiring the use of cameras during combat operations. Obvious security concerns about the footage making its way into the hands of an adversary or being exploited for anti U.S. military narratives and propaganda has effectively shielded the military from being mandated to video record its actions. However, if the incidents in Ferguson, Cleveland, and Baltimore tell us anything – it’s that a video can either save or destroy one’s public narrative.

A number of reasons to support the use of body-cameras at all times during combat operations exist.

  1. Public Accountability – First, like the police, the U.S. military scrutinizes every violent act to ensure that the military means employed were authorized and used responsibly. The U.S. military is bound by a number of conventions of war limiting undue harm and suffering to both its adversaries and civilians on the battlefield. Our adversaries have sought to exploit this by portraying U.S. military actions as unjust or overly destructive. By recording and presenting actual footage from these events the U.S. military could make its case that it had performed due diligence and taken all necessary precautions to prevent collateral damage or death.
  2. Quality Control – Second, to the extent that the U.S. military may have bad actors in its ranks, the use of body-cameras could help hold them to account for their actions. The U.S. military will continue to have to operate in environments where everyone has a smartphone with a camera. The pressure to act virtuously in all situations – even during life-and-death scenarios – will only increase. In the long run, the U.S. military will be better served by using documented incidents to prosecute and remove bad actors than it will by trying to deny or cover up these events.
  3. Training Resource – Finally, beyond trying to employ body-cameras to counter the narrative of others and protect from litigation, the use of these systems should be considered as powerful learning tools. The military has primarily used body-cameras as a means to review the actions of individuals and teams as they encounter challenging tactical scenarios. A service member’s ability to watch his or her own performance, or that of another, and evaluate what went wrong and what went right enables them to learn and adapt.

What are the Primary Concerns of Using Body-Cameras?

  1. Privacy Concerns – Both the police and military have concerns that the use of body-cameras will infringe on their privacy and the privacy of citizens. These concerns must be considered along with other concerns that the government in general is collecting too much information about its citizens. There is a balance, however.  Limits can and should be put in place through the establishment of independent reviews and scrutinized access to recorded materials.
  2. Over Dependence on Cameras – Another concern by the police is that an over reliance on body-cameras may appear – whereby other accounts by witnesses may become discredited or undervalued in courts of law. A number of innate biases and limitations to human cognition and memory have been well documented and used in courts to undermine the credibility of human witnesses. New technologies will not change this. Instead, they offer a means to verify accounts and can provide a counter perspective to the limited recordings offered by bystanders with grainy smartphone footage.
  3. User Editing – Some early use of body-cameras found that users edited out content selectively. The mandate to use these devices centers on accountability and veracity. To allow users to modify content would undermine these efforts and negate their effectiveness. Tampering controls can and should be put in place to prevent this.

What will Military Communicators Be Asked to Support?

  1. Back-end Infrastructure – Beyond the devices being worn the means to store and access the glut of recorded media produced will also be required. Systems designed for video surveillance storage and analytics appear good solutions. The banking and retail sectors have already invested mightily in the development of these systems therefore their experiences should be capitalized on by the DoD.
  2. Data Security – Data at the device, in transport, or in storage will have to be secured and properly classified. This will be a top challenge in developing any long-term solution. Should a device be compromised its data must be eliminated. If body-camera feeds are transmitted from the device, in real-time, it must travel encrypted – increasing the overhead of its bandwidth use. Unlike other forms of stored classified materials – the video produced by body-cameras may contain personal data or other information requiring limited access. Uploading this data to the right location with the right access restrictions will be a challenge.
  3. Automated Classification – As new body-camera systems are designed they should include as much automated classification as possible. Some tools have already been developed for the use of augmented reality devices such as geofencing and automated object tagging that could be adopted to automatically label and categorize the content recorded by body-cameras. Moreover, marking the time at which a given reference occurs could allow classified sections of video to be automatically restricted without intense post-production editing or management.
  4. Video Search and Analytics – The final requirements for the long-term success of body-cameras systems will be the capacity to search and perform analytics on the enormous catalogue of video that will be produced. The ability of systems to conduct image search within videos to identify key objects and people that have not been manually tagged will be essential. Moreover, the ability to input video into other analytic programs – such as those seeking to map geographical areas, analyze human performance and behavior, and study secondary factors from an environment – may provide a profound source of information for future big-data programs. The notion that a supercomputer someday may learn from these tapes just as Watson has learned natural language from Wikipedia and other data sources is not completely unreasonable. The first step in achieving this machine learning may come from access to the video content provided by body-cameras in the environment.

In conclusion, I believe much of the work to build the necessary back-end infrastructure to overcome these challenges will be difficult. However, I do not see any end in sight for the use of body-cameras by the police or military. The demands for the use of these devices will likely increase as the technological means to employ them decrease in cost. Now is the time to begin a reexamination of our policies and practices to ensure we are prepared for this future.

As always – the views in this piece are mine alone and do not represent the U.S. government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization with which I have had any association.

You can reach out to me via LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter.

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