Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Taser's latest weapon: tiny cameras and the cloud

NYTimes | Yesterday, Taser will announced a camera, a half-ounce unit about the size of a cigar stub that clips on to a collar or sunglasses of an officer and can record two hours of video during a shift. The information is transferred by a docking station to a local machine, and eventually stored in a cloud-computing system that uses Taser’s online evidence management system.

Taser, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., has had its share of controversies over its electric-shock guns, which Rick Smith, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, says are used by 17,000 of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States.

Although it is sold as a nonlethal weapon, the device’s safety has been repeatedly questioned. The Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the company’s safety claims in 2005 and 2006, and while it took no action against Taser, the company’s shares fell 78 percent in 2005 as sales declined. Law enforcement agencies with tight budgets also slowed their orders.

Fears about the safety of Tasers remain, despite company claims they are safer than nightsticks or guns. The 2007 “Don’t Tase Me Bro” video of a student receiving shocks at a political event was seen six million times on YouTube, keeping concerns high. Last spring, a team of cardiologists at the University of California, San Francisco, said Taser-related safety research may be biased because of ties with the company, something Taser denies.

Mr. Smith, who has had himself shocked in public with versions of his product seven times just to allay fears, said, “You have to lead from the front.”

But the camera system, called Axon, is one way to defuse the controversies. Taser already has some 55,000 minicameras mounted on Tasers. But the camera is only triggered when the gun is drawn. It could do the same for police shootings. The video, however, would not capture the events leading up to that point and provides no context that might justify the weapon’s use.

“One big reason to have these is defensive,” Mr. Smith said. “Police spend $2 billion to $2.5 billion a year paying off complaints about brutality. Plus, people plead out when there is video.” Sergeant Davis says Mr. Berry’s widow later claimed her husband was holding a cellphone, not a gun, but the video exonerated the officer.

In Taser’s cloud evidence system, which resides on Amazon.com’s cloud storage service, the videos can be tagged and labeled for record-keeping. The software has editing capabilities to protect the identities of some people captured on the video, like victims of child sex crimes or undercover officers. The video cannot be deleted while in the camera, though an officer can choose when to turn his camera on and off, something Mr. Smith does not think will happen often during confrontations because the videos could help clear law-abiding officers.

“When people know they are on camera, they act like better citizens,” said Hadi Partovi, an Internet entrepreneur who is on Taser’s board.

That goes for law enforcement officers, too, said Mr. Smith. “We have more cameras on cops than anyone else.”

Jay Stanley, a policy analyst with the speech, privacy and technology project at the American Civil Liberties Union, was enthusiastic about the prospect of body cameras on law officers.

“We don’t want the government watching the people when there is no reason, but we do support the people watching the government,” he said. “There are concerns about police editing or deleting files, but overall the cost and benefits make it worthwhile.”