Gardaí wear body cameras at protests
Body cameras worn by gardaí cause consternation in Dublin
Chaotic scenes have been witnessed across Dublin this month as protests against new water charges escalate. On 11th October upwards of 50,000 protesters marched in the capital militating for the tax to be abolished and calling for mass non-compliance. The row over yet another austerity tax for Ireland has enjoyed global attention, however a civil liberties subplot emerged due to the fact that some gardaí were sporting body cameras and filming protesters.
Dr T.J. McIntyre is a lecturer in the School of Law at University College Dublin and specialises in IT Law and Civil Liberties. He is also chair of the civil liberties group 'Digital Rights Ireland'. Writing in the Irish Independent on Saturday last McIntyre gives a fairly even-handed overview of the issues surrounding the use of body camera technology by officers. As he conceded himself there wasn't enough space in the article to tackle all the complex issues surrounding this newest form of enforcement surveillance and the discussion continued on his own blog with the opening gambit Garda body cameras: quis custodiet ipsos custodes?(Translating of course as 'Who guards the guards' or more often 'who watches the watchmen'.)
The main bone of contention is that the cameras were allegedly rolled out without fanfare or consultation with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner. This antagonised some protesters and encouraged further commotion as people waved their mobile phones taking retaliatory video. This is an unusual response as trials in the UK and North America have indicated that the presence of cameras can have a modifying effect on behaviour. An extensive trial on the Isle of Wight has proven highly encouraging, early indications are that complaints against the police dropped 30% over a 12 month period along with a substantial 80% public support for the use of BWVC. Tony Porter the UK Surveillance Camera Commissioner stated “BWVC will have a massive impact on 21st century policing"
Should we welcome the use of body cameras by enforcement officers?
T.J. McIntyre's article in the Independent interrogates the use of police body cameras in general and ponders if we should welcome their appearance. Any increased surveillance of the public has potential for controversy from civil liberties watchers, however perhaps dissenters can be assuaged by the notion that they also serve a function in encouraging police accountability. “They can benefit police and the public at the same time, providing evidence of crime, protecting police against false accusation and deterring police abuses of power.”
McIntyre dissects some ideas that are already circulating as part of the wider BWVC debate in the UK and North America. He posits that cameras could run for the entire duration of an officers shift; though whilst acknowledging the potential privacy invasion for the officers he does not address the extraordinary volume of data and associated storage and management issues that this would create. In fact several competitor cameras on the market currently rely on mandatory manufacturer software systems that do not permit the data to be deleted for 30 days. Pinnacle are opposed to this enforced storage as are a number of high-placed policy influencers within the UK. Many feel storing everything for 30 days whether of evidential relevance or not is logistically unwise and questionable from a civil liberties standpoint.
The recording of the Dublin protesters raised a number of concerns, with speculation that the data might be used to create a visual database of protesters and political activists even though they have not committed any criminal offence. It's suggested that this “could have a chilling effect on the exercise of lawful rights”. The article concludes; “To meet the basic requirements of data protection law, gardaí will have to ensure the public are put on notice of their use, that information recorded on the cameras is only kept where necessary for a legitimate purpose, or promptly deleted otherwise.”
“Police body cameras aren't inherently bad"
McIntyre's stance is probably best summed up in 140 characters from his own twitter feed; “Police body cameras aren't inherently bad-they can be important for accountability-but we need transparency about their use and control”. His article is as good a summation of the concerns the public about the use of BWV as is out there. It underscores that whilst anyone (including law enforcement agencies) are free to record video and audio in public, there needs to be provision for careful control of the footage harvested. It should only be retained if for a legitimate purpose, otherwise promptly deleted. Good practice and Home Office guidelines in the UK dictate that officers must verbally articulate to a subject that they are being recorded. Trials have shown that simply being put on notice to this effect can have a modifying effect on a situation. Furthermore, agencies must be mindful that the public have the right to request access to footage of themselves, and the industry at large must also work to protect the privacy rights of officers.
As in the UK, BWVC guidelines are largely gleaned from the CCTV legislation at present. A number of BWVC trials are reaching conclusion there however. Steering groups and forums have started the long process of unravelling the findings and shaping them into cohesive recommendations thence law-making. Body worn cameras on law enforcement officers are clearly here to stay, the debate about how they can be best utilised to serve both the public and the user still has some way to run yet, not least in Ireland.
(McIntyre) “The next step should be consultation – with the Data Protection Commissioner and the wider public – followed by a public set of guidelines.