Police video redaction: Where big data meets privacy
After several highly publicized cases of videos showing questionable police action, local departments increasingly are turning to body-worn cameras. Yet these systems, intended to capture exchanges between officers and suspects or victims, are causing new headaches for police officials as requests for the footage are being made through the states’ freedom of information laws.
Responding to such requests takes time and money because someone must sift through the video and make the appropriate redactions -- such as blacking out or blurring minors’ faces or sensitive information. Plus, redaction requirements vary according to each state’s laws. Besides the cost of the labor, police departments also must budget for video storage and redaction technology.
To offset the costs, some police departments have tried charging requestors. The New York City Police Department recently billed cable news channel NY1 $36,000 -- or $120 per hour -- for 190 hours of footage the news network requested through New York’s FOI law.
And sometimes, the work is simply too much for a department. The Seattle Police Department stopped its body-camera plan in 2014 after an anonymous person asked for all videos from dashboard-mounted cameras and planned to request them from body-worn ones.
“I think what we are witnessing is a change in the paradigm of policing,” Russell Covey, a law professor at Georgia State University, told Ars Technica in January. “[It’s] similar to what we saw in the ’50s when police moved from foot patrols to squad car. We’re now seeing the advent of the big data era. This is the future of policing.”
The Obama administration thinks so, too. Through the Justice Department, it gave $20 million in funding last year to police departments to buy 50,000 body-worn cameras -- the first part of a three-year program budgeted at $75 million to determine the cameras’ effectiveness.
“The FOIA element of it was really, I think, a surprise to the entire community,” said Sean Varah, CEO of MotionDSP, which makes video redaction software. “They didn’t think, ‘Uh oh, what happens when we give 2,000 body cams to a police department and they’re recording for the entirety of a shift?’”
This challenge affects police departments of all sizes.
“Large departments will have dedicated evidence-handling people and so we make their job easier and flexible,” said Tom Guzik, CEO of IRSA Video, which partnered with ruggedized device maker Getac to deliver end-to-end police video management systems. “Smaller departments -- there’s 18,000 police departments and the majority of them are 50 staff or less” -- often do not have the staff to deal with video redaction, he said. “It’s usually someone’s responsibility, so we make it easier for them to actually do the task.”
This lack of expertise is the main obstacle to fulfilling FOI requests, said Ed Claughton, president of PRI Management Group, a law enforcement information management consultancy based in Coral Gables, Fla.
“The biggest things that we’re seeing is that [police departments] don’t have the time or the resources or the expertise to be able to redact the footage according to what the law requires,” Claughton said. “Believe it or not, we’ve seen agencies that don’t give out the record at all. Conversely, I’ve seen agencies that give out the entire view unredacted. Both of those approaches would be violations of the law.”
Looking for third-party help
As they struggle with fulfilling FOI requests quickly while also adhering to privacy requirements, police departments are looking to vendors to help ease the burden. As a quick fix, some departments use commercially available video editing software such as Adobe Premiere. Even simpler is the Custom Blurring tool that YouTube released late last month that lets users blur any object in motion. But more targeted solutions are cropping up.
Ikena Spotlight is one solution that aims to let police departments respond to FOI requests more efficiently and cost-effectively. California-based MotionDSP began making Ikena Spotlight about five years ago to redact video from surveillance cameras. Since then, the company has added algorithms to redact footage from cameras in motion -- such as body cams -- and is getting ready to launch the latest version this spring with audio redaction and modulation, improved tracking and a faster workflow for decoding and encoding video.
To use Ikena Spotlight, an official opens a video file through the Windows-based software program and then selects the time range needed. The software works like a video player but has an interface that lets users click on the objects to redact. Officials can select the type of redaction -- blur or black out, for example -- and when they’re done, the software saves the redacted video to the hard drive.
It works on any computer, but Varah said some departments opt for high-performing machines to run the software because of the file sizes involved.
“There’s a fair amount of compute required in doing this kind of sophisticated tracking or any kind of redaction. Because when you do redaction, you basically have to decode the video, you’ve got to process all the pixels through the processor of the computer and then you’ve got to re-enter the video out to disk again,” he said. “These body cams are very high-resolution. Some of them are 720p or even 1080p so that’s 2 megapixels per frame. It’s an enormous amount of data.”
The key ingredient for Ikena Spotlight, Varah said, is the person using the software. Although some vendors push automation, he said the human element is crucial.
“Because redaction requirements are different in every jurisdiction, it’s very hard to make an automated solution that knows what to redact and what not to redact, so we let the human do that,” he said. “If something goes wrong in a redaction and a person’s face even in a single frame is not blurred -- the face of a minor or the face of a witness or the face of an undercover police officer -- the potential liability, it can put someone’s life at risk…. In these cases with really high-stakes video footage, you can’t afford to not have a human involved.”
Ikena Spotlight currently costs $2,995, but the new version will bump the price tag to between $3,000 and $4,000. MotionDSP also is working on a cloud version that users can try now.
While Ikena Spotlight puts the tools in the hands of police departments, PRI Management handles redaction for them. It’s an online, cloud-based service that uses the Microsoft Azure Government cloud platform, which is compliant with FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division security requirements.
Users log in to a PRI Management webpage that’s been customized for the department and upload a copy of the video to a virtual machine in the cloud. They also fill out a form about the video, including whether it’s from an open or closed case and whether an arrest has been made or a juvenile is involved. Next, PRI Management’s team of police records technicians get an email alert, log into the virtual machine, and redact the video according to state law and to what the department specifies. When the redaction is done, an email notice goes to the department. PRI Management is working on adding text message notifications, too, Claughton said.
The turnaround time is typically one day, but expedited requests can be met within a couple hours. The company offers two pricing models: annual contracts for departments that get many FOI requests and daily fee options for those that get a few. A single video would cost $75.
PRI Management offers storage options, too, but it automatically purges videos after 30 days if departments don’t request longer or shorter storage.
The total package
Other companies aren’t camera-agnostic. California-based Getac offers video redaction as part of its Veretos Enterprise Evidence Management suite. It’s an end-to-end solution that includes body-worn cameras and the tools to redact the video they record. Getac provides the tools in the Azure Government cloud but can also install them in a self-hosted environment. All a department needs for redaction is a web browser and connection to its storage servers or to the cloud.
The Veretos system manages the company’s in-car and body-worn camera systems, “but you can also upload Vievu video, video from your iPhone, from your Android, from your camera, bystander video,” Guzik said. “The whole idea is that you have a cohesive, single workflow.”
After users select the video or videos they need, they click on a gear that pops up and select redact. From a menu, they choose what they want to redact -- audio, video or both -- and the level of blur. The technology will take all the videos selected and process them in a batch and make copies that are available for downloading and distribution.
“The other, bigger problem is organizing your data,” Guzik said. "If you can imagine, you have body-worn cameras, you have in-car video, you have bystander video that comes in, you have security camera video -- most of these systems in a law enforcement agency live in different areas.” He noted that seven to 10 systems could house the video that’s been requested.
That’s why Veretos Cloud also stores video, enabling authorized users to search evidence by metadata, such as date, keywords, incident types and location, and to share evidence via secure links.
“When you can put all this together into one platform, which we’ve been doing now for seven years, you can then basically say, ‘Hey, we’ve just simplified life for a department,’” Guzik said.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.