Over the past year, officers in parts of Rio have begun testing a tool called Smart Policing: an Android smartphone application designed to automatically record and store everything an officer hears and sees while on patrol. Developed under a partnership between Google and the Igarapé Institute, a Rio-based think tank, the app uploads encrypted video footage to a cloud server and, in case of a chase or emergency, can stream live feeds to police headquarters. A working prototype will be unveiled tomorrow at a New York event hosted by Google Ideas — Google’s public policy think tank — and Rio looks to expand the pilot program to more favelas over the coming months. […]
The Rio pilot is expected to continue through 2014, and Igarapé plans to launch similar programs in the slums of Nairobi and Cape Town, though it’s not clear if or when the initiative will be adopted on a large scale. Equally unclear are details on how it would be regulated, something that has raised concerns among civil rights advocates.
"They have to have a clearly articulated strategy for how they’re going to use on-officer video and audio," says Scott Greenwood, a civil rights lawyer who has worked with police departments on similar programs in the US. Greenwood acknowledges that wearable cameras can greatly enhance officer oversight and provide "unimpeachable evidence" in cases where police conduct is brought into question, though he has reservations about the constant and automatic surveillance that the Smart Policing app would entail.
"If the idea is to just capture everything at all times, that’s just broad surveillance," he says, "and that certainly hints at creeping ‘Big Brother.’" […]
The Smart Policing program, according to Muggah, could help calm the relationship between [Police] and civilians by assuring each party that an “eye in the sky” is collecting objective evidence of their interactions. Under the program, officers would attach their smartphones to a clip on their chest pocket, and the app would activate as soon as they leave headquarters or their cars to patrol an area by foot. All audio and video data would be encrypted and uploaded to the cloud, and Muggah expects that it would only be accessible by a select few — presumably, police commanders. An interface at police headquarters, meanwhile, would allow commanders to track the location of their officers at all times, and could pull up live video feeds whenever an officer uses the app to send an emergency alert.
Muggah acknowledges that the app poses obvious privacy concerns, saying that if widely launched, it would have to be in tandem with an effective information campaign to “sensitize” both police and civilians. In its final form, the app will include face-blurring technology to protect the anonymity of passersby, though Muggah says residents who have encountered police testing the technology have so far been “benign or indifferent” to the project. It also remains to be determined whether the cloud infrastructure will be operated by the police or a private contractor.