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Body cameras, drones and privacy debates! Oh, my!

October 06, 2014

Drones and body cameras are suddenly popping up in a wave of local government expenditures that are capturing fall season headlines. Under pressure after late-summer demonstrations, police departments are snapping up body cameras as the latest in law enforcement fashion. Fire departments looking for an edge are turning to drones as nifty first responders arriving before the human first responders.

Washington, D.C.’s police department just announced a pilot program in which nearly 200 officers will wear body cameras throughout the day. A much more cautious Seattle is going to test it on about a dozen of its officers. But it’s Norfolk, Virgnia, with its 700 officers, that’s going all out with an ambitious 300-officer body camera initiative. Meanwhile, in Montgomery County, Maryland, fire officials are on the cusp of launching drones as part of the firefighting corps just as soon as they write some rules governing the flight of the unmanned air machines. 

It’s a rather fascinating and very quick new development. We’ve been having a discussion about drones throughout recent months, but typically within the framework of retail uses such as Amazon’s proposed droning of its delivery service. And Hollywood received approval recently from the FAA to fly drones over movie sets for new filming angles. Gartner has discussed drones as a “market” technology, now commodity ready for markets like agriculture, and analyst Juergen Weiss in the Digital Insurance Hype Cycle for 2014 also discussed how police body cameras help insurance companies on a number of emerging analytic fronts. And analyst Jeff Vining notes that “government agencies at all tiers—national, federal, provincial, state and local—and in every region must deliver on a digital business strategy that transforms processes, business models and citizen experience while operating within constrained budgets.”

But there’s no big discussion on the policy, privacy and data implications surrounding sudden drone or body camera use by these smaller, more localized governments. In the wake of the NSA leaks, a wary public already feels a bit more conscious about its privacy online and outside. In a YouGov survey from January, roughly 43 percent of Americans don’t trust the government to “properly regulate” drones the way it should. Gartner’s Frank Buytendijk examines the increasing need for digital ethics, which “includes security, cybercrime, privacy, social interaction, governance, free will, and society and economy at large.”

Privacy considerations are bound to come up as a major piece to the security puzzle. Which could use help from subject matter experts or vendors who are skilled in making decisions about what specific surveillance technology to employ and how to implement it. The questions abound. There has been ongoing debate about the larger federal government collecting private information or watching its citizens—but what’s the discussion like when it’s on a local level? Can municipal or county-size governments actually manage this kind of technology and the tremendous amount of data it represents? And will these smaller-scale governments, in the rush to use the technology, have the infrastructure in place to handle it? There’s a wide range of answers to those questions. Ultimately, governments will need partners who can help them traverse those challenges.     

Charles Ellison is a senior analyst relations strategist for TEKsystems. He keeps close tabs on changes and public policy shaping the innovation space. He is also a former congressional staffer, senior aide to state and local elected officials and an expert advocacy strategist. You can reach him with questions and comments @twoARguys via Twitter.


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