Mass surveillance, Watch Dogs and the militarized police: When strapping cameras on people is a good idea

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When an unnamed Ferguson, Missouri, police officer stopped Michael Brown on the street, Brown was walking alongside his friend Dorian Johnson. Johnson and that police officer are the only witnesses to the interaction that ultimately ended with Brown's death.

That police shooting has led to a week filled with protests, a week marred by accusations of police violence.

One photograph has stood out as emblematic of the police response to these protests. It's a photo of an African-American man, arms raised to surrender, walking backward. Nearly a dozen heavily armed St. Louis County officers march towards him.

But look closely at the picture above.

Do you see it? There, near the center of the photo, bolted to one of the officer's black helmets.

It's a video camera.

Serve and protect

When the St. Louis County Police prepared themselves to deploy to the scene of the protests this week, they loaded their M-4 carbines, they checked their gas masks and they strapped on their body armor. And they made sure their cameras had batteries, turned them on and headed into the streets of Ferguson.

Last year, while I was conducting research for my feature called Watch_Dogs: Invasion, I spent some time at the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS) convention here in Chicago. One of the items I took the time to learn about was the Vievu LE3, a wearable camera designed for duty officers to take with them on patrol.


Not the camera you see in the photo above. Something intended to be much more commonplace, a device built to patrol alongside regular beat cops.

The Vievu camera was designed by a Seattle SWAT officer. It is small, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and light enough to clip to the front of an officer's shirt and wear all day. It has 90 minutes of recording time, including high-definition video and audio. It's built so that an officer can activate it even while they're holding a weapon with both hands, and encrypted to secure the video from the street all the way to the courtroom.

It is a silent witness, an innovative piece of technology that's been on the market for several years now. Comparable devices are made by companies like Taser.

And they're in Watch Dogs as well. Every time you come up against an Elite enemy, there's the chance that one of them will be wearing a "hidden camera." The main character, Aiden Pearce, can hack into those cameras and use them against the paramilitary forces in the game.

But the reality, like much of the fiction in Watch Dogs, is something very different.

Steve Lovell, the president of Vievu, told Polygon that his camera wasn't designed to be a covert device. Vievu cameras are designed to be highly visible, so the public knows that they're on camera.

The largest deployment of Vievu devices was, at the time of our interview, for the city of Oakland's police department, who commonly wore them openly during protests as a way to show citizens they were accountable for their actions.

In fact, certain states require that officers inform citizens that they're on camera. Lovell said that anecdotally, these types of interactions had the effect of calming the emotions on both sides of tense police interactions. After all, people like to smile for the camera.

"Our cameras have a green halo around the lens," Lovell said. "This is designed to let other folks know that they're being recorded. ... There's a calming effect that goes with that because people that are engaged with officers, maybe they're stressed out ... and when they know that they're being recorded, there could be a calming effect that helps resolve the situation.

"If I'm on a traffic stop," Lovell said, "and I walk up to the car and I turn this on, the citizen knows that we're recording — that I've got a recording device pointed right down at them — maybe their verbal [confrontation] will be reduced. Hopefully it's a calming situation that doesn't escalate into violence, but law enforcement is a rough environment.

"If the tool provides a calming effect for the citizen and it calms them down, that's great. It's a benefit that's not measurable."

Your tax dollars at work

When a police officer wears a camera, when he or she makes it a part of their everyday interaction with the public, it serves to keep people's emotions in check. And, most importantly, it serves to create an irrefutable artifact. It preserves the truth.

In Ferguson today, the truth is unclear. We have the story of Michael Brown's friend, Dorian Johnson, and we have the story of the officer involved in the shooting. It will take months, maybe years, to sort things out.

The sad fact is that the Ferguson police purchased wearable devices like the Vievu. Polygon repeatedly emailed and called Ferguson officials to discuss the matter, but other news outlets confirm that they are sitting on the shelf and have not been deployed to officers in the field.

(Ed. note: Polygon submitted an open records request with the city of Ferguson for details on those cameras.)

When the St. Louis County Police arrived to assist the Ferguson police, they didn't come armed to calm the situation. They came with M-4s, tear gas launchers and refitted, military-class armored vehicles on a mission to clear the streets. That's where the bulk of their taxpayer funding was spent.

And by then it was too late. Emotions were running high on both sides. Any calming effect a camera would have had on the situation was lost, just like it is in the photo above, amid a stunning display of militarized force.

As they marched through the streets of Missouri, the St. Louis County Police looked every bit as fearsome as the shadowy cartoon villains in a Ubisoft video game.

How different it could have been if there had been a camera on the Ferguson police officer that stopped Michael Brown. How different it could have been had that officer been trained in its use.

Perhaps a camera could have saved a life. Or helped solve a murder.

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