When a lot of people think of the rise of surveillance technology, they start to imagine dystopian, Orwellian nightmares straight out of 1984. Even those of us not deeply steeped in paranoid conspiracy theories can agree that having security cameras absolutely everywhere is not necessarily the direction in which we’d like society to move. But what if all those new cameras weren’t being used to spy on citizens, but rather to keep an eye on the government?
In a new Philadelphia City Paper article, reporter Daniel Denvir looks at how cellphone cameras have been a great way to keep an eye on police acting unlawfully. In one recent case, prosecuting attorneys attempting to convict Askia Sabur, a Black man, of assaulting a police officer had to contend with an eyewitness’s video, which actually depicted something quite different from what the prosecution alleged: Sabur being violently beaten by an officer. When it came time for the jury to deliberate, it took them less than an hour to find Sabur not guilty.
“Cameraphone videos and photos have in recent years transformed the capacity for civilian oversight of law enforcement, from overthrown Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek’s attack on demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to campus police’s nonchalant pepper-spraying of Occupy Wall Street protesters at the University of California, Davis,” writes Denvir.
Sabur’s defense attorney is also a fan of smartphone cameras, telling Denvir, “Next to DNA, the democratization of gathering of evidence by means of the universal camera … the cell phone … is an enormous development in terms of the potential for real justice.”
If cameraphones have already revolutionized the way citizens police the police officers, the next generation of technologies will have an even greater impact. Take, for instance, Google Glass, the new Google technology designed to give you all the functionality of a smartphone in a pair of glasses resting right on your face. With Google Glass, people won’t even have to pull out their phones to record, they’ll simply have to say “record,” and their glasses will start filming whatever they’re looking at. Imagine being able to tape any interaction you have with a police officer completely hands free and then put that interaction immediately online. Think that might start making more officers be on their best behavior? I do.
Indeed, a nation of people with recording devices constantly at the ready will have its drawbacks: creeps taking surreptitious photos of women, stalkers being able to secretly record someone’s daily routine, etc. But it will also have a lot of benefits, and keeping crooked cops on their toes may be one of the best.
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