Should Cops Wear Google Glass?

Over at The Kernel, staff writer Greg Stevens wonders whether police departments around the world should outfit their officers with Google Glass.

There’s some logic behind the idea. A cop with wearable electronics constantly streaming audio and video back to a supervisor (or even a Website) would be less likely, at least in theory, to take liberties with civilians’ civil liberties. “A recent year-long study has shown that when police officers are required to wear cameras, they are less likely to behave badly,” Stevens wrote in his piece. “Shifts without cameras experienced twice as many incidents of use of force as shifts with cameras.”

Even in its most basic form—no fancy infrared add-ons or anything like that—Google Glass would make the ultimate cop-monitoring tool: the “stock” models are capable of streaming video and audio to a Google Hangout, which means a supervisor could sit in front of a monitor and watch several officers’ streams in real time. It’s also open to modification, meaning that a third-party developer could build apps for facial recognition, sound triangulation, or crime-scene navigation (the facial-recognition part is already in development). And if Google eventually decides to retail the device for a couple hundred dollars, it’s also affordable to most police departments, especially those with budgets fattened by civil forfeiture.

As Stevens suggests, the issue isn’t necessarily whether police and other authorities should wear electronics that monitor their activities—for starters, it’s who ends up watching those activities at the other end of the connection.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, wrote in a recent blog posting that society needs to make choices “about the extent to which we want to allow the government to store up that data so that it has the power to hit ‘rewind’ on everybody’s lives.” In the view of that organization, “that’s just too much power.”

But existing laws could also prevent Google Glass from kicking off some kind of Orwellian free-for-all. Under the Wiretap Act, intercepting audio signals is strictly controlled by state and federal statute, and generally requires a judge to sign off on a specific monitoring action. Federal law only requires that one party consent to taping, while some states require the consent of all parties involved in the conversation. That’s the crucial first issue when dealing with the Act; the second is whether the conversation under potential surveillance is being conducted in a place where a party has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

“If the officer is recording a communication he has in public with someone, there’s probably no wiretap problem since there’s at least the consent of one party and no expectation of privacy,” Hanni M. Fakhoury, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote in an email. “But if he’s recording peripheral communications between two separate individuals, than there’s potential wiretap liability depending on the circumstances.”

The government has traditionally argued that people “don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the movements and activities they do in public,” Fakhoury added, particularly with regard to video surveillance. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s position is that, if a technology is used to aggregate information on an individual, it falls under the auspices of the Fourth Amendment.

In other words, officers wearing Google Glass during an arrest or search could spark a thorny legal battle, depending on the circumstances. Which brings up another issue: if streaming data from an officer’s Google Glass is routed through Google’s servers on its way to a supervisor’s monitor, would that somehow “taint” or weaken the stream’s use as evidence? Could a defense attorney stand before a jury and argue that, because the data existed on a set of private servers for however long, it could have been corrupted or compromised in some way?

“I don’t think who stores the data necessarily triggers Fourth Amendment scrutiny provided its the police who collect the data (even if that ‘collection’ is almost instantaneous with storage of that data),” Fakhoury wrote. “If Google for example accessed that data and then used it to send targeted ads or something, that may trigger some statutory (as opposed to Fourth Amendment) protection but I’m honestly not entirely sure.”

If law enforcement agencies around the world decide that wearable electronics is the best possible recourse for officers, the circumstances over how the technology is used will probably be determined in the same way as so many other things: by lots and lots and lots of lawsuits and court actions, probably stemming from a handful of real-world incidents. Nobody ever said the march of progress didn’t go through a whole lot of mud.


Image: Google