‘Google Glass for cops’: wearable cameras, surveillance, and Ferguson

At the end of June I submitted an article to the Journal of Geography in Higher Education on using Google Glass based on the Urban Studies fieldtrip. In between receiving the reviewers’ comments (which were hearteningly, unmistakably positive, the first time this has happened for several years…) and then doing the edits for the final version, what comes along – BHAM – but the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown. And then another shooting a few miles down the road.

How is this related? Well, the reviewers strongly suggested a separate Ethics section. And while I was considering the ethics of using Glass, a couple of things happened.

Firstly, a conversation with philosopher Tom Sparrow about the second shooting, of Kajieme Powell. I then saw the video and was struck by how many smartphone cameras were recording the events. The main video which surfaced showed a peaceful Mr Powell waiting for the police, and then showed the rapid police response with overwhelming force. Much of the arc of the narrative was captured by amateur videographers.

Secondly, a story in the news just yesterday (e.g. St Louis Dispatch and BBC) about how the police were being supplied with wearable cameras – ‘body cams’ – in the interests of ‘transparency’ so that further heartbreaking disputes about events do not occur. The Chief Executive of Taser International, the well-known manufacturers of the Taser stun gun, in an interview in the Washington Post, explains the rationale:

“We believe the concept of using wearable cameras to provide a foundation of transparency has hit a tipping point,” said Taser’s chief executive Rick Smith in a statement Tuesday. “The intense emotions that arise from uncertainty and diametrically opposed conjecture about what did or did not happen in life and death encounters can tear communities apart. We believe wearable technology, like body-worn cameras, is the future for communities to relate to those entrusted to protect them.”

This has made me rethink the ethics of such surveillance in a big way. The headline of a blog post in The Next Web from last year about the new wearable surveillance equipment that Taser is diversifying into rather aptly calls this ‘Google Glass for Cops’ – the fact is, we have to rethink the way we use this kind of equipment.

My JGHE article was mostly focussed on using Glass for mobile videography, and builds on other social science work (by e.g. Katrina Brown, Bradley Garrett) in trying to get a sense of bodies-in-place through videographic means. But the new ‘Ethics’ section has made me reconsider the utility of this technology for those researching protest groups, say, or quasi-legal activities.

In other words, I had to restrain myself from writing a rather lengthy, angry section that might form the basis of a different paper… for those who want to check it out, here ya go… [link to PDF on my academia.edu site]


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