Keeping law enforcement on the level.

Let’s go to the videotape … or not.

Video is supposed to be the “great equalizer”: evidence that doesn’t lie — particularly in the case of chronicling law enforcement events.

From New York City and Chicago to Baltimore, Charleston, SC and dozens of places in between, there have been a number of “high profile” police incidents in recent years where mobile video has made it possible to go beyond the sometimes-contradictory “he said/she said” statements coming from officers and citizens.

There’s no question that it’s resulted in some disciplinary or court outcomes that may well have turned out differently in times before.

In response, numerous police departments have responded in a way best described as, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” They’ve begun outfitting their law enforcement personnel with police body cams.

The idea is that having a “third party” digital witness on the scene will protect both the perpetrator and the officer when assessments need to be made about conflicting accounts of what actually happened.

This tidy solution seems to be running into a problem, however. Some security experts are calling into question the ability of body cameras to provide reliable evidence – and it isn’t because of substandard quality in the video footage being captured.

Recently, specialists at the security firm Nuix examined five major brands of security cameras … and have determined that all of them are vulnerable to hacking.

The body cam suppliers in question are CEESC, Digital Ally, Fire Cam, Patrol Eyes, and VIEVU. The cameras are described by Nuix as “full-feature computers walking around on your chest,” and as such, require the same degree of security mechanisms that any other digital device operating in security-critical areas would need to possess.

But here’s the catch: None of the body cameras evaluated featured digital signatures on the uploaded footage.  This means that there would be no way to confirm whether any of the video evidence might have been tampered with.

In other words, a skilled technician with nefarious intent could download, edit and re-upload content – all while avoiding giving any sort of indication that it had been revised.

These hackers could be operating on the outside … or they could be rogue officers inside a law enforcement department.

Another flaw uncovered by Nuix is that malware can infect the cameras in the form of malicious computer code being disguised as software updates – updates that the cameras are programmed to accept without any additional verification.

Even worse, once a hacker successfully breached a camera device, he or she could easily gain access to the wider police network, thereby causing a problem that goes much further than a single camera or a single police officer.

Thankfully, Nuix is a “good guy” rather than a “bad actor” in its experimentation. The company is already working with several of the body cam manufacturers to remedy the problems uncovered by its evaluation, so as to improve the ability of the cameras to repel hacking attempts.

But the more fundamental issue that’s raised is this: What other types of security vulnerabilities are out there that haven’t been detected yet?

It doesn’t exactly reinforce our faith in technology to ensure fairer, more honest and more transparent law enforcement activities. If video footage can’t be considered verified proof that an event happened or didn’t happen, have we just returned to Square One again, with people pointing fingers in both directions but with even lower levels of trust?

Hopefully not. But with the polarized camps we have at the moment, with people only too eager to blame the motives of their adversaries, the picture doesn’t look particularly promising …

3 thoughts on “Keeping law enforcement on the level.

  1. Every technological advance spawns new forms of crime, Fortunately, street criminals are usually a decade behind and seldom sport Ivy League degrees.

    Does anyone recall how long it took carjackers to figure out stolen phones could be traced? For ten years they’d mug people, steal cars and then be totally surprised when found by police! Then they got wise to it….and carjackings are way down.

    Now we have cameras everywhere. Our whole world is being illuminated — right down to mouse cadavers in the corners. A police camera may be hackable in sophisticated theory, but probably seldom in practice. And if a corrupted department started tampering, sooner or later it would be exposed by conflicting video and audio evidence from passers-by, from cameras in stores and parking lots, or by emails revealed by someone honest given immunity.

    It’s hard to imagine, in the information age, that it will ever become easier to keep secrets — even nefarious secrets. But cameras do identify crime and will become ever clearer at identifying perpetrators, as video gets sharper.

    The USA is at the top of the information food chain and shouldn’t worry too much. Imagine what Silicon Valley creativity could do to an Iran or Russia, if that sort of war needed to be fought.

    Much of our world used to be dark and suspect. We worried about things that went bump in the night. Now we see almost too clearly. It may even disgust us; who likes mouse cadavers? But it’s a safer world all the same.

  2. Blockchain technology is the solution to the problems cited in this article. It is the technology which underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, but in this situation no money changes hands.

    Instead, when data — which can include video files — is stored in a blockchain, it is hashed and cryptographically signed in a way which makes it permanent, tamper-proof and verifiable. Hashing and signing makes it easy to conclusively determine if a file has been tampered with or rewritten. If any such file is found it can be ignored.

    Software updates can likewise be distributed via blockchain networks, allowing camera devices to verify the source and authenticity of the code before installing it.

    Files can also be encrypted before they are stored in the blockchain, to keep them confidential.

    When files are transmitted via blockchain networks in this manner, camera devices and central police servers are no longer accessed from the public Internet, except to update the blockchain database at each node of the network (camera device or server). This makes it much more difficult for a hacker to penetrate the security defenses of the camera device or server.

    Disclaimer: My company, Geoprise Technology, develops and sells enterprise software which incorporates blockchain technology for data security.

  3. Body cameras are a good start as a way to provide an “impartial” view of an event. However, as described above there are potential issues with the data’s integrity and its potential to be compromised.

    There is another issue with body cameras that I haven’t really heard being discussed. The body camera by its position on the officers chest, usually in the center, does not always provide an accurate view of what the officer sees.

    If you want to see what we see (yes I said we; I am a retired police officer), then you need to see it from my perspective — meaning eye level. So, if people want a truly accurate recording of an event, then maybe it’s time for glasses with cameras in or on them. These glasses could be both prescription and non-prescription and would have the added bonus of protecting our eyes from dust, debris and bodily fluids.

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