Privacy commissioners issue guidance on police body cams

There is some evidence that the use of body-worn cameras (BWC) by police reduces the use of force by front-line officer and cut down on complains against the service. However, Canadian federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners is urging law enforcement agencies to carefully consider the risk to personal privacy that the devices pose.

The guidance released by the commissioners called on police forces to evaluate if expected benefits of the use of body cameras outweigh the impact to privacy and personal information before introducing the use of the devices in their jurisdiction. They also highly recommended the use of a privacy impact assessment to identify and mitigate potential privacy risks.

“As well, law enforcement agencies can consult with data protection experts and undertake a pilot project before deploying the cameras broadly,” according to the commissioners.

Some police forces in those in Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary have tested or are currently testing the use of body cameras. In the case of Toronto, a report on the fatal shooting by police of 18-year-old streetcar passenger Sammy Yatim, recommended that front-line officers who carry guns and deal with people in crisis should be equipped with body cameras.

BWCs provide an audio-visual record of events from an officer’s point of view as officers go about their daily duties. The high-resolution digital images allow for a clear view of individuals and are suited to running video analytics software, such as facial recognition. Microphones may be sensitive enough to capture not only the sounds associated with the situation being targeted but also ambient sound that could include the conversations of bystanders, according to the guidance.While BWC are meant to record an officer’s interactions with the public as well as collect evidence and protect officers against unfounded allegations of misconduct, the devices also record personal information that can be connected to an identifiable individual. The recordings are therefore subject to Canada’s personal information protection statues.

The images and sounds recorded by BWCs also generate metadata which can include transactional data such as time, location and duration of recorded activities. This data can also be connected to an identifiable individual.

Other issues highlighted in the guidance include:

  • Public awareness: Law enforcement agencies should inform the public of any new body-worn camera program through local media and other outreach initiatives. As well, during recorded encounters, officers should be required to notify people of recording of images and sound whenever possible
  • Safeguards: Recordings should be adequately safeguarded with measures such as encryption, restricted access and strict retention periods
  • Policies and procedures: There is a critical need to have in place policies and procedures to address issues such as accountability, employee training and the handling of individual’s requests for access to recordings
  • Bystanders: Criteria for activating cameras should address the need to minimize, to the extent possible, the recording of innocent bystanders or innocuous interactions with the public
  • Secondary uses: If use of recordings is considered for secondary purposes such as officer training, research or employee performance evaluation, these secondary purposes need to be reviewed to ensure the appropriate protection of the privacy and personal information of individuals
  • Facial recognition:  The use of video analytics technologies such as facial recognition, licence plate recognition, and pattern recognition raises additional concerns regarding privacy and the collection of personal information that require further scrutiny and care

“There are clearly benefits to the use of body-worn cameras, however, there are also significant privacy implications,” said Daniel Therrien, privacy commissioner of Canada. “Given this, and as more and more policing organizations consider adopting this technology, we are encouraging them to address those privacy issues upfront to ensure they strike the right balance between law enforcement needs and the privacy rights of Canadians.”

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Nestor E. Arellano
Nestor E. Arellano
Toronto-based journalist specializing in technology and business news. Blogs and tweets on the latest tech trends and gadgets.

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