Menu

Dreams of Accountability, Guaranteed Surveillance: The Promises and Costs of Body-Worn Cameras

Researchers Alexandra Mateescu and Alex Rosenblat published a paper with D&S Founder danah boyd examine police-worn body cameras and their potential to provide avenues for police accountability and foster improved policy-community relations. The authors raise concerns about potential harmful consequences of constant surveillance that has sparked concerns from civil rights groups about how body-worn cameras may violate privacy and exacerbate existing police practices that have historically victimized people of color and vulnerable populations. They consider whether one can demand greater accountability without increased surveillance at the same time and suggest that “the trajectory laid out by body-worn cameras towards greater surveillance is clear, if not fully realized, while the path towards accountability has not yet been adequately defined, let alone forged.”

The intimacy of body-worn cameras’ presence—which potentially enables the recording of even mundane interpersonal interactions with citizens—can be exploited with the application of technologies like facial recognition; this can exacerbate existing practices that have historically victimized people of color and vulnerable populations. Not only do such technologies increase surveillance, but they also conflate the act of surveilling citizens with the mechanisms by which police conduct is evaluated. Although police accountability is the goal, the camera’s view is pointed outward and away from its wearer, and audio recording captures any sounds within range. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult to ask whether one can demand greater accountability without increased surveillance at the same time.

Crafting better policies on body-worn camera use has been one of the primary avenues for balancing the right of public access with the need to protect against this technology’s invasive aspects. However, no universal policies or norms have been established, even on simple issues such as whether officers should notify citizens that they are being recorded. What is known is that body-worn cameras present definite and identifiable risks to privacy. By contrast, visions of accountability have remained ill-defined, and the role to be played by body-worn cameras cannot be easily separated from the wider institutional and cultural shifts necessary for enacting lasting reforms in policing. Both the privacy risks and the potential for effecting accountability are contingent upon an ongoing process of negotiation, shaped by beliefs and assumptions rather than empirical evidence.