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Amid reports of police shootings of unarmed, mostly black, individuals and the waves of accompanying protests, police body cameras have gained favor as a tool to make police-citizen interactions more transparent. Studies have shown that body cameras have decreased the number of complaints against police officers and use-of-force incidents. Additionally, one study has shown that 88 percent of Americans favor body cameras for police.

Notwithstanding the popularity of police body camera policies, some say they could have profound implications for privacy. Some privacy advocates worry about the use of facial recognition technology in the body cameras and have called on legislators and police departments to put limits on its use. At least nine out of 38 manufacturers of body cameras have facial recognition capabilities or have built in an option for the technology.

Gizmodo reported that Taser, a police body camera manufacturer, acquired an artificial intelligence startup called Dextro Inc, which claims to be able to “use object recognition software to train officers to better discern actual threats.” The technology scans body camera footage and pinpoints any objects in the footage, like a gun; it can also pick up motion information, like a punch. Dextro then creates a searchable database for when those objects appear in the footage. Gizmodo notes that “turning police body camera and surveillance footage into a searchable database would change the very nature of public spaces by chipping away at our ability to be anonymous.”

After reports that police departments targeted Black Lives Matter and other protests for surveillance, it’s not a stretch to imagine they might use body cameras to invade the privacy of those who speak out against police violence. Police departments have already used facial recognition software to identify specific protestors from pictures on social media. The combination of the troubling privacy implications of facial recognition and the portability and range of police body cameras is no doubt concerning for free speech and privacy advocates.

–Olivia Marshall




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