Big Brother? Body cams, face-recognition apps, and liquid body armor

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Woop woop.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported yesterday that several police departments in California are equipping officers with tiny cameras to wear while on duty. San Jose and Oakland police departments are reportedly testing out similar technology, and the so-called body cams are under consideration in Seattle too.
To be sure, this could be a welcome development for police-watchdog organizations who've found that it is difficult to hold an officer accountable for misconduct when you have little to go on besides an officer's word versus that of the person alleging abuse.

According to a Popular Mechanics article about the Axon, a body cam worn behind the ear manufactured by Taser International, the technology was conceived of to fend off abuse allegations against police officers. It’s an ironic twist, considering that for 20 years activists affiliated with volunteer-run Copwatch groups have shadowed cops with their own cameras to capture police misconduct on film. Taser International also makes a miniature camera that clips onto a Taser and starts recording when the weapon is deployed.

Steve Tuttle of Taser International is quoted in the article explaining how body cams could benefit police:

"At first blush, it sounds like Big Brother. But if we're not doing it, it's the kid next door recording it with his cellphone. And what if he didn't flip it open in time, and he doesn't catch his buddy making verbal threats or attacking the officers first? What happens then?"

The presence of a camera lens could possibly deescalate situations by inducing violent offenders to think twice about their actions, or dissuading officers from using excessive force. But it gives rise to plenty of questions. What if people are recorded without probable cause? What if an officer decides to stop recording just before delivering a baton blow to someone's head? Will the technology further erode community trust in law enforcement? Will police officers experience more anxiety because their every move could be subject to scrutiny?

Kellie Evans, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said the body cams have the potential to benefit police and police watchdogs, but warned that success would depend on regulations pinned down during implementation.

“Departments need to have very clear rules about when the camera will be turned on,” Evans said. It’s essential that departments clearly spell out how the recordings will be used and how the integrity of the footage will be preserved, she added. “We all know that police misconduct is taken more seriously when a video tape is involved,” she said.

We put in a call to the San Francisco Police Department to find out if anything is in the works to test out police body cams in the city, but haven’t received a response yet. Media Relations Officer Samson Chan did, however, chuckle ruefully and offer that he doubted if the department’s budget would permit such a thing. Axon cameras cost $1,700 each, according to the Chronicle story.

Meanwhile, there are other noteworthy developments on the high-tech police gear front. A new iPhone app that can instantly identify suspects is being tested out by a Massachusetts police department, PC World reports. Using facial recognition software, the app -- called MORIS (Mobile Offender Recognition and Identification System) -- allows officers to point their mobile phones at a person to call up identifying information. If a biometric match is found, information associated with that person is immediately sent back to the iPhone.

Asked what she thought about the app, Evans -- who hadn’t heard anything about it before we forwarded her the article  -- told us, “This technology isn’t a substitute for traditional police work.”

Facial recognition technology is fraught with problems, she said, and agencies have abandoned it before because it tends to churn out a high degree of false positives and false negatives. “Too many mistakes can be made,” she cautioned.

“This does raise a lot of red flags for us,” Evans added. “It would be critical that police not be using it in some roving fashion.”

The third new product to land on our radar is perhaps the most sci-fi of all. Fast Company reports that team of U.K. scientists has unveiled liquid body armor that hardens on impact to become bulletproof, using something called “non-Newtonian fluid mechanics” that we do not pretend to understand.

We didn’t bother asking if police departments in Oakland or San Francisco have any plans to outfit their officers with liquid body armor just yet. Apparently, it’s anyone’s guess when it would be put to use in the field, and even then it will likely be shielding U.S. soldiers.