London’s Metropolitan Police Service has today announced it will use Microsoft data centres to store video evidence from body-worn cameras in the cloud.

Techworld spoke to the MPS’ superintendent Adrian Hutchinson, and learned that the data from police recordings will in some instances be held indefinitely, raising questions about the privacy of video evidence.

© Forward Geek
© Forward Geek

A programme is underway to provide body-worn cameras to all Met police officers, with 3,500 operational at present. According to Hutchinson, who helped initiate the project from the beginning, the scheme aims to increase transparency and restore community confidence in policing, and will given to 22,000 officers in all of London’s 32 boroughs.

The cameras are manufactured by TASER – the company that developed the infamous electronic dart gun favoured by law enforcement around the world. They can record roughly 12 hours of footage. When a police officer returns to a station, the cameras are placed in a docking station, where the footage is automatically uploaded to Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform.

Officers also decide how to categorise the footage, and whether it will be useful as further evidence. If the officer concludes it is not useful, the footage will be automatically deleted after 31 days – but if it is considered useful as evidence, it can be stored indefinitely, Hutchinson said. 

In practice, the cameras are not always rolling, and it is up to the individual officer when to turn them on or off.

Microsoft’s role is in providing the cloud platform that will host the data, however the management software is built by TASER.

“We follow all the UK guidelines around data storage, and work with a lot of people like the Office of the Surveillance Commission, we’ve engaged with Big Brother Watch, Liberty,” he said. “So we follow the standard. But it could be for murder, for instance, where it could be for life.”

“We have an active weeding policy and we don’t record and retain everything – we mandate officers to only record in certain circumstances, things like stop and search, domestic abuse, use of force, and stops of vehicles. The issues where that information is important for transparency, but also to bring offenders to justice.”

The role of an American company like Microsoft raises questions about the sovereignty of the data. The US government recently demanded Microsoft hand over its email data that was sitting on servers in Ireland – eventually the courts ruled in favour of Microsoft, but there are still possibilities that the Justice Department could appeal, seek a legislative fix, or rely on Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties to gain access to the data. 

In response to this, Hutchinson said that the Metropolitan Police has “done our due diligence” but “let’s not forget that we use Microsoft products and we have done for many years in sensitive policing operations.”

“It’s a UK-based policing operation with a long-term supplier, we did our due diligence and we’re completely comfortable with Microsoft in their UK base. We are happy with UK legislation and UK storage, which is what we’ve got.”

According to Hutchinson, there are no instances where an officer absolutely could not film, but he said that there are “some quite strict guidelines”.

“For instance, if you are in someone’s house and they were naked, you would give it serious consideration whether it was absolutely necessary to record that,” he said. “Equally, if a member of public comes up to us and said: ‘I don’t want to be filmed while you’re stopping and searching me’, we could consider switching the camera off, but we would normally continue to record.”

Ultimately, Hutchinson told Techworld that people have no right to refuse to be filmed. “The right at the moment is they can ask the officer to turn the camera off, and the officer can consider that,” he said. “There’s no right or wrong but we offer we offer some straightforward guidance and it is about operating consent really and that’s what our officers do day in day out.”

Members of the public who have been filmed by the police can put in a Subject Access Request to view any footage taken of them.

When asked whether the Metropolitan Police had done enough to publicise access to Subject Access Requests with body-worn cameras, Hutchinson said: “We are working with communities and we have specific social media – we have got web pages, and we’ve just put out a short social media video explaining why we wear body-worn video. Already this has got 250,000 hits, and that’s really important to get out there and connect with communities.”

Hutchinson said Subject Access Requests become more complicated when footage is filmed at mass demonstrations, but did not explain other than mentioning “all of the implications of doing that”.

“We have not been inundated with requests,” he said. “The reality of life is you get filmed a lot. We think we’ve worked a lot with communities, to get communities to tell us what they want, and the communities are in favour of the transparency and accountability.”

Police across the UK have faced criticism for acts of excessive force, sometimes resulting in deaths - with the officers involved escaping reprisal despite video or photographic evidence.

In response to this, Hutchinson said: “The camera provides a 130-degree view. It doesn’t show everything, it provides a great record but it doesn’t show everything, it doesn’t show what’s gone on before, etc. Every situation is different. 

"What I can tell you is our officers deal with tens of thousands of incidents on a daily basis – and if they’re caught on film doing the wrong thing we will deal with that as an organisation.”

According to Hutchinson, the cloud system is "far more secure than disk" thanks to an audit trail that monitors who has logged on and off the system, for how long, and where the files have been shared. He said that there are physical safeguards in place too, but did not go into detail.

"We have done quite a lot of testing around that, and we're confident it is resistant to tampering," he said. "Let's not forget the vast majority of the encounters the police officers have in the community is the sort of stuff you see on Police Camera Action, it’s not highly confidential police information."

"But we have that security and have that wrapped around so the public can be reassured we are looking after their data, their private data."