Seattle Police Held a Hackathon to Figure Out How to Redact Body Cam Video Streams

Seattle Police Held a Hackathon to Figure Out How to Redact Body Cam Video Streams

By Lily Hay Newman
Dec 22 2014

Along with police departments in New York City and Los Angeles, Seattle police are preparing to test body cams on officers in the field. In an attempt to find a balance between releasing footage and redacting private details, Seattle police held a hackathon of Friday.

Discussion around whether law enforcement agents should wear body cams has surged in the months since the shooting of Michael Brown. And as funding comes through for pilot programs, it’s increasingly important to answer question about how these devices will be implemented.

As GeekWire reports, about 80 people—including developers, community members, and law enforcement agents—attended the Seattle Police hackathon. The goal was to work on techniques for redacting things captured in streamed dashboard or body cam video such as people’s faces or license plate numbers. The hackathon was specifically looking to address these topics as they relate to Washington’s privacy laws, but the work could be relevant all over the country.

“With 1,612,554 videos already on our servers—and more on the way through our upcoming body cam pilot program—our department is looking for a better, faster way redact those videos and make them accessible as public records,” Seattle police said in an announcement about the event. “SPD is working to release more video than ever before, while striking the right balance between transparency and privacy. … We’re looking for a few good hackers who can help.”

Seven groups presented redaction tools, each with a different balance of automation and human review. The challenge is quickly processing large amounts of footage so the videos can become part of the public record without violating privacy. Many videos need no redaction if they are filmed in public spaces, but some groups, such as minors and people on private property, are afforded protections that must be reflected in the footage. Redaction of faces and facial blurring was a popular topic, with presenters from a group of University of Washington students as well as Simon Winder from the robotics and machine learning company Impressive Machines.

Though programs to test body cams are becoming more ubiquitous, they—like any technology—aren’t an inherent good. Their utility depends on how humans use them. Criminologists Justin T. Ready and Jacob T.N. Young of Arizona State University have made this point in Slate pieces about police training and myths related to body cams. They write, “Monitoring police behavior and demonstrating accountability are in the public’s interest as well as police departments’. But accomplishing this goal will require great attention to conveying recorded information honestly.”

The Seattle hackathon seems to have been a step in that direction. GeekWire wrote, “Mike Wagers, the SPD Chief Operating Officer, was very pleased by the results, saying they exceeded his wildest expectations, although admitting he had no specific expectations from the session.”

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