Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition
Accountability or surveillance?
Critics of livestreaming body cameras have argued that they could pave the way for more widespread surveillance of the public.
Farhang Heydari, executive director of the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law, said the technology could be used in a limited way at first, as the PBSO policy proposes, but eventually run into something called “mission creep,” a gradual expansion of the technology’s use beyond its original scope.
He pointed to regular body cameras, which he said “started as an accountability tool and became more a surveillance tool,” as well as license-plate readers, where the technology “used to find stolen cars originally, and now Oklahoma uses it to find people who don’t have insurance.”
Livestreaming combined with facial-recognition software theoretically could allow officers to identify people just by walking around, Heydari said.
The Palm Beach Sheriff ’s Office is one of the most prolific users of facial-recognition technology in the state, the South Florida Sun Sentinel found in a 2021 investigation.
The majority of those uses, or nearly 60%, involved Black people, which exceeds the area’s Black population and arrest rates.
“Once you have real-time capability, you can run facial recognition technology on that and start identifying people on the street,” Heydari said. “Tie that to a warrant database, and then one day as you’re walking down the street, it’s pinging people on open warrants or unpaid tickets.”
When asked for comment Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida pointed to a 2016 op-ed it had published against the technology, arguing that it could tip the scales from police oversight to infringing on peoples’ privacy.
“The centralized live-streaming of body cameras would instantly super-charge the surveillance powers of the authorities, especially in communities that are already heavily policed,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the ACLU, wrote. “... Live monitoring significantly disrupts the careful controls and balances that are necessary if police body cameras are to strike the right balance between oversight and privacy.”
Stanley also argued that remote activation of the livestreaming function, which PBSO allows, means that the footage also might infringe on the privacy of officers themselves.
Pressed on the privacy issues Thursday, Bradshaw said that there will be a constant review process, where each district will select body cameras at random and examine the footage. He also said that the footage won’t be going to a centralized monitoring station, but directly to the supervisor stationed nearby in a vehicle.
The department policy states that “only those members with an immediate operational need shall access and view the video livestreams.” That access will require approval from “a Command Duty Officer, Officer in Charge of critical incident, or a member of the senior executive staff.”
Heydari suggested that the policy should be more specific and include clear limits, such as a statement that states that facial-recognition software will not be used in real time. But he also thinks the community needs more than an internal policy.
“Even better is for there to be kind of democratic checks on this,” he said. “I would rather there be a city council or county supervisors’ rule that says livestreaming can only be used for the following purposes, and be really specific about it.”