Imagine: You’re getting ready in the morning, teeth-brushing, breakfast-making, putting on your clothes. Pants, a shirt, a watch. Then — your wearable body camera.
You feel the weight of it for a few minutes. It’s probably clipped to your chest or glasses. But quickly, it’s as if it’s not there.
You walk outside, and it appears many people have had the same routine.
Just as we got used to cameras on buildings and cameras in everyone’s pockets, now it’s normal that there are cameras on bodies — taking photos every 10 seconds or so, in case the footage becomes useful later.
This is the future as imagined by people who research wearable cameras, and what it means to record what you do all day everyday.
In the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., body cameras were held up as one tool for increasing transparency in law enforcement. Brown’s family has stated its support for the technology. President Obama proposed a $75 million plan that would help purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras for U.S. police departments.
Wearable cameras are technology, Obama says, that can “enhance trust between communities and police.”
The assumption, made by the president and police across the country, is that body cameras have the power to change the behavior of the people they are filming.
And most studies of the subject show that they do.
“This is not as distant a future as we imagine,” said Albrecht Schmidt, a professor of human interaction at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. “Now, we are making a conscious decision of what to capture on camera. When we wear cameras, we capture much more than we need, and when there is something we need, we always have it.”
Schmidt is a researcher in a European Union-funded project on memory augmentation, or making it easier to remember things accurately, which is the primary reason people want body cameras for police.
Video footage serves as a backup, if not a substitute, for the faulty human brain. If there is a complaint by a citizen that an officer was unjustly forceful, footage from a body camera will be there to show what happened.
How would this technology be useful to average citizens? Cathal Gurrin has an idea. He is a professor at Dublin City University but is better known as a “lifelogger” who has been wearing a body camera nearly every day since 2008.
Instead of video, his camera takes two to six photos a minute that are put into software that makes the images searchable. The pictures are not meant to be hung in frames or shared with friends — they exist to ensure that he can remember exactly what happened on a given day.
“When did I last have my keys? When was I last talking to this person? How often do I eat sushi? It’s an externalized version of my memory,” Gurrin said.
The better the software becomes at recognizing faces and objects in photos, the more useful it is. Not only would we be able to look back on our days (something proved to help prevent memory loss, especially for people with dementia), but we also would have a better understanding of how we spend our time. As individuals, that means we could report to our doctors exactly what we ate and drank or how we exercised.
If it became common to share this personal data, researchers could study the life patterns of hundreds of people with the same disease. Travelers could look at exactly what to expect when trying a new hotel or city. When a tragedy or act of terrorism occurred, investigators would have thousands of pictures to help find out what happened.
There will, of course, be privacy concerns. But researchers such as Schmidt say that those will be worked out as the technology becomes more useful.
“If you look at society, we are at a moment like the transition from the oral tradition to the writing age,” Schmidt said. “It took a few thousand years, but once people were writing things down, societies that didn’t do the same had a hard time being competitive.”
The wearable cameras that are commercially available, such as the Narrative Clip, GoPro or Autographer, typically sell for under $350, slightly less expensive than the most common police-worn body cameras.
For one week, I wore the Narrative Clip, a 1.4-by-1.4-inch square with a lens in one corner that takes a photo every 30 seconds. Along with not noticing it was there after a few minutes, I was surprised by how comfortable other people were with the device. I wore it at Target, and no one asked about it. I wore it on the bus and saw only two people glance at it, then turn away. I wore it at home, where my roommate asked, “Whoa, are you filming me?” But after a quick explanation, she forgot about it, too.
This is how the Narrative Clip company hoped it would go, its chief executive, Martin Kallstrom, said.
“We wanted it to be both honest and subtle,” Kallstrom said. “It needs to communicate that this is a camera, not be hiding itself like a stick of gum in your pocket.”
So they made the Narrative Clip look like a camera — there is a metal ring around the lens — but not so much that it feels like a constant third eye.
If everyone was wearing one, would we just live normally, with cameras attached?
In much of the research on body cameras for police, that is the question being posed. In the Justice Department’s summary of U.S. studies on the topic, all three researchers answered no — when a camera is on, behavior will change. The studies found that when police were wearing body cameras, the number of complaints against officers decreased significantly.
“An officer might go by a restaurant and the owner says, ‘Come on in; here’s a free meal.’ And the officer goes ahead and pays for his meal, because the camera is on,” says Wesley Jennings, a University of South Florida professor who is studying the effect of body cameras in the Orlando and Tampa police departments. “Overall, you’re more inclined to behave by the book in all times and places.”
Of course, having footage of an incident does not mean everyone will agree on what took place, as was seen in the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. A video taken by a bystander was widely accessible to the public.
In an investigation of police misconduct, “the officer’s story, witness and third-party interviews . . . all the standard chain of evidence is still taken into consideration,” Jennings said. “Video clips from the body cameras are the most visible, but they are only part of the overall story.”
The existing studies show that the presence of a body camera affects citizens interacting with the police as well. It seems that they are less likely to make false reports against officers.
“We need more research to figure out what’s going on, but the question is: Why are we seeing this reduction? It seems that there is a civilizing effect,” said Mike White, an Arizona State University professor who wrote the review of body camera studies for the Justice Department. He notes that there might be a saturation point — we will get used to cameras, and the impact will diminish.
The permanent effect of wearable cameras for law enforcement will have a lot to do with how they are used. That’s what Lindsay Miller, of the Police Executive Research Forum, says. She interviewed dozens of police chiefs for a report that would later be cited in the White House’s announcement of funding for body cameras.
“It will really depend,” Miller said, “on what we see in terms of: Are these tapes going out to the media? Are they being used as evidence?”
If footage from police-worn body cameras is frequently played on TV or seen online, Miller said, citizens and police will be less likely to ignore a rolling camera.
And the more we see that footage, the more footage we will be creating, until most people wear cameras all the time. That’s the best guess of Schmidt, the German researcher.
“When we have applications that make us smarter, people will jump on it,” he said. “Ten years from now, this will be common.”