Police Eye Google Glass as Surveillance Tool

The New York City Police Department is the latest law-enforcement agency to test the wearable technology

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A few months ago, an officer for the Byron Police Department in Georgia made a routine traffic stop equipped with an unusual piece of technology: Google Glass.

The wearable computer allowed the officer to record everything he was seeing for future reference, and because it was also linked to the department’s video system, it let his bosses back at the police station monitor how the traffic stop was going in real time.

The police department in Byron, a small city about 20 miles (32 km) south of Macon, became the first law-enforcement agency in the U.S. to use Glass when it partnered with Georgia Tech and the surveillance-technology company CopTrax to test the device for a day in September. But it won’t be the last. As recording technologies become more mobile and less expensive, police departments are increasingly looking to tools like Glass to aid officers in the field.

The latest to do so is the New York City Police Department, which began testing two pairs of Glass in December. “The devices have not been deployed in any actual field or patrol operations, but rather are being assessed as to how they may be appropriately utilized or incorporated into any existing technology-based functions,” says NYPD deputy commissioner Stephen Davis, who wouldn’t specify how the department acquired them.

Other departments haven’t been as lucky. Google says the only way to get Glass is to sign up for the company’s Explorer program, the name it uses for nonemployees who have been granted early use, and hope your name is called. About 10,000 are in circulation, and they cost $1,500 per pair. The San Francisco Police Department has reportedly tried to acquire a pair, as have police departments in Massachusetts. Byron and New York City are the only U.S. police departments known to have used Glass.

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Glass is the latest tool for law-enforcement agencies increasingly focused on using surveillance technology to improve policing — and monitor the conduct of their officers. Cameras mounted on the dashboards of police cruisers have been a fixture for years, and police departments in Arizona, California, Colorado and Florida have experimented with body-worn cameras to provide a more complete visual record. In August, the federal judge who ruled that aspects of the NYPD’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” tactics were unconstitutional suggested that officers wear cameras as a way to monitor their behavior on patrol.

“Body-worn cameras are emerging as a mechanism to increase officer accountability, develop evidence and affirm or reject accusations of abuse or wrongdoing on behalf of both officers and citizens,” says Jeremy Carter, a professor at Indiana University–Purdue University of Indianapolis, who studies police technology.

The types of cameras most often used by police are small recording devices that clip to an officer’s uniform. Some are even attached to an officer’s sunglasses. But they are not interactive. Glass allows for similar recordings while also providing officers hands-free voice-command features and location information.

“What we are seeing is more and more agencies looking at body-worn video and cameras, and Google Glass fits into that general realm,” says Dave Roberts of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “They’re a very useful enhancement to in-car cameras and provide a broader context. We think it makes sense to use both.”

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Roberts, who writes guidelines for police departments that are testing new technologies, suggests that officers shouldn’t be able to turn cameras on and off, and that they not be used inside a home or during interviews with juveniles or victims of sexual assault.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has similar concerns, though it is broadly supportive of camera use as a check on law enforcement. “The most important thing we call for is that body cameras not be subject to individual officers editing on the fly,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. “That would trump the advantage for citizens for oversight over the police officer.”

The organization hopes Google devises policies that cover Glass data to ensure that it’s not used or disseminated in an improper way by Google employees. Google says Glass has a small flash drive on the device for storage, but also backs up photos and videos into a private folder in the user’s Google+ account.

For police departments, the biggest impediment to widespread use of Glass is access.

“It’s definitely something we would look at again when Google Glass is more readily available,” says Byron police lieutenant Bryan Hunter. “And when the price is cheaper.”