Body-worn cameras (BWCs) are already a common feature of policing in the UK, although they are not widely used in Scotland.

A research team that I led has produced an evidence review, to help Police Scotland better understand the consequences of using BWC technology, and how it should be best managed and governed.

The main focus of the review was to assess evolving citizen-police relations, new data processes and technology specific arrangements for scrutiny and accountability.

The benefits of BWCs are reasonably well established, they are useful in collecting evidence of incidents, they offer a degree of personal protection to police officers, and it is argued, that they offer increased transparency of policing practices.

Consequently, BWCs have diffused into policing in many countries and many police forces in the UK. It is also evident, that there is a certain degree of public support for this technology.

However, the introduction of BWCs is accompanied by a number of challenges, which have to be overcome, if the technology is to be used effectively, fairly and in the public interest. 

Our review highlights five main challenges.

Firstly, there are concerns about how BWCs influences citizen-police relations, especially in relation to ethnic, gender and religious minority groupings, and here the concern relates to the “chilling effect” caused by the use of overt surveillance technologies.

According to existing published research the long-term impact of this technology on race relations and on citizens is unclear. This points to caution in the use of BWC in certain situations.

Secondly, are a series of challenges relating to compliance with data protection principles and legislation. These challenges are not insurmountable, but they do require careful attention if rules around informed consent, data security, data sharing and subject access requests are to be adhered to. 

This challenge becomes more complex if BWCs are merged with other IT systems and databases, such as face recognition technology or public space surveillance camera systems.

If face recognition software was to be applied to BWCs then rules around the use of biometrics come into play.

Thirdly, there are concerns about who are the main subjects of surveillance and whether this is the general public or police officers themselves. For some, BWCs are a technology to monitor the behaviour of the police, and can generate footage to be used to identify training needs, to share best practice and for disciplinary purposes – and in doing so provide greater transparency and accountability of policing.

Currently, little is known about the attitudes and experiences of police officers who use BWCs and whether they feel it has changed their behaviour. It is also very unclear how police forces across the globe use BWCs to monitor the behaviour and performance of police offers, or in disciplinary proceedings.

Fourthly, it is evident that there are massively divergent scrutiny and accountability mechanisms governing the use of the technology in different regions of the UK – meaning, that where you live will determine how the technology is used and whether any protections and oversight for the public exist.

Our review found that there are novel emergent mechanisms used to govern BWCs, including dedicated “scrutiny panels” and practices referred to as random “dip sampling”, as well as dedicated codes of practice and use protocols, but these were the exception and not the norm, and they were not standardised nationally.

Fifthly, current levels of public support are premised on the use of simple isolated BWC units that are visible to the public. This level of support cannot be assumed where BWC technology evolves to incorporate more sophisticated opaque data processes, such as those associated with face recognition and live streaming technologies.

Face recognition technology is currently banned in some jurisdictions, is considered toxic by civil liberties groups and lacks evidenced public support. Should such technology be incorporated into BWCs, which is technologically feasible, then there is a risk that there would be a loss of public confidence in the technology and potentially policing more generally.

While the challenges around BWC that emerge from our evidence review are significant, they do not mean that BWCs should not be used for policing. Rather, the review points to areas that require attention and the need for clear guidance on how the technology should be used and governed.

While the direction of travel towards the deployment of BWCs seems inevitable, the evidence review makes it clear that protocols around use of the technology, around the management of data and scrutiny and accountability mechanisms, need to be in place before the cameras are rolled out.

This is important to ensure legitimacy of use and facilitate public confidence in the use of the technology. For Police Scotland, and the potential widespread use of BWC in Scottish policing, we argue that the force is in a “position of strength”, in that it can build on and adopt what is seen as “best practice” elsewhere.

This would include developing oversight mechanisms, so that the public can be confident that the technology is used appropriately and proportionately and in an auditable way.

Here, it is suggested that Police Scotland review what other police forces are doing in this area and design processes that are compatible with Police Scotland’s institutional arrangements.

A complete set of recommendations around the use of BWCs in Scottish policing can be found in the full report:

Prof. Webster will speak at Digital Justice & Policing on 13 October at the Technology & Innovation Centre, University of Strathclyde