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ACLU launches phone app to help motorists secretly record police stops (autoblog.com)
275 points by MRonney on July 5, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 93 comments

Hi, I'm Rich, I run http://OpenWatch.net, we made this app for the ACLU. It is a fork of our Free and Open Source program, OpenWatch.

The really interesting part is that we get thousands of the recordings send back to us. The app has been out for more than a year and we have collected thousands of recordings.

We need people to help process all of the data. If you have any experience with audio processing, trans-coding audio, or data visualization, please get in touch! - rich@gun.io

(Source: https://github.com/Miserlou/OpenWatch---Android/network

iPhone Version: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/cop-recorder/id433040863?mt=8 )

Thank you for this; an important contribution to freedom. Sending you email now.

Isn't this something that could be Mechanical Turked?

I think they're looking for volunteers.

Volunteers, or hackers who want to work on something automated.

We have a whoolllle lot of audio, to transcribe it all on MTurk with the resources we have (ie, none) - would be very cost prohibitive.

What we need is a system which can convert 3gp to something more usable, automatically remove noise, automatically remove silent parts, automatically adjust the levels for speech, and then automatically transcribe them. It's a challenge.

Pretty much everything but automatic transcription is pretty straightforward. Feel free to email me if you want some advice in that regard (email's in my profile).

Rich, I sent you an email.

Police should be required to record all audio/video when making any kind of stop.

It's an official action. Instant dismissal if such recording is purposely incomplete, tampered with or "lost".

ps. that ACLU video is just not good on so many levels - they should replace it with something to reflect how serious this is

It can also be very benefital for police aswell. It's a great defence against claims of police brutality and abuse. "That cop pushed me!" "We looked at the video, he didn't."

It's win win and helps make everyone honest.

Unless it's recorded, there's a good chance they won't believe you. Oh, you have a bruise? That could have been caused by anything. Judges and juries tend to side with cops. So cops have little to gain by recording everything, which is of course why they are generally against it. They outlawed it in Illinois before it was overturned.

"Judges and juries tend to side with cops."

I see that becoming less and less true… A couple of recent examples locally:



The part that bothers me about the first case linked is that the officers were submitted to an internal investigation. They should have been arrested as soon as the video evidence came to light. There is far too little willingless to arrest and imprison officers that betray public trust. I know it's also this way in the US; it's incredibly rare to see an officer fired, much less imprisoned.

It may becoming less true, with less meaning 95 rather than 100 percent of the time. There is tremendous inertia and precedent in the legal system to side with the officer over the citizen. This, along with judicial familiarity with local law enforcement (most traffic and municipal disputes by definition are raised by a few officers in a given jurisdiction) almost guarantee the lack of the possibility of fairness.

Amazing cases. Hope little brother continues to root out police abuse of citizens.

Not "we looked at the video", but "here, take a look at this video". Don't trust the police to self-determine if they're at fault.

Minneapolis claims that in the majority of cases, video of police encounters exonerates officers and eliminates frivolous claims.

That could be because in many of the cases where the police have done something wrong, they destroyed/confiscated evidence of that wrongdoing.

I have no idea what you're trying to say. So... what... you think the police shouldn't endorse recording of police encounters? Because I was giving an example of the police doing that.

You said that video usually supports the officers' statements, and not the civilians' statements, according to the official statistics. However, those statistics could actually be quite distorted, if the police regularly destroyed the video in those cases in which they were at fault.

I'm basically just saying that the statistics could be misleading.

I would think that if there was a general rule of police recording their stops, the lack of recording in a contested situation might be damning in itself.

At least in Ohio most police cruisers are setup to record video+audio of stops and the police are supposed to use them at every stop. Whether or not that happens I don't know.

Except it doesn't. Copy have had video in their cars for years but when abuse comes up it's generally off camera or the footage gets "lost". Both sides should be recording.

Even in jurisdictions where police make recordings, they use the recording to prepare their notes and then dispose of the recording.

This is an excellent video to watch in its entirety, but at 45:30 you can see a police officer proudly explain that he destroys recordings after he gets what he wants from them:


This might help explain the reason to have your own recording.

I think with the arrival of Project Glass and many such products (all it takes is for the market to pick-up), we'll eventually get the police to wear them. My only concern though is that the recording should in no way be owned by the police. It should be streamed directly to another agency.

Reminds me of Charles Stross' books Rule 34 and Halting State. LEOs (law enforcement officers) are required to wear such "life-loggers", and IIRC there's some sort of checksum on the video's integrity. There's an unobtrusive backup recorder for certain situations, and (of course) cases where the LEO will disable all of their recorders, with the attendant concerns of abuse.

> Police should be required to record all audio/video when making any kind of stop.

And you expect that to work? Police policing police.

No, it should be part of the judicial process like all other evidence gathering law. Judges and lawyers and juries policing police.

Of course not! You've got to call the Police police -- everyone knows Police police police Police.

You can use that as a buffalo sentence: police police police police police police police.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_buffalo_Buffalo_buffalo... (and can I just say that this is an awesome Wikipedia URL.)

These are fun. "Fish" works too. Did you know that fish buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo fish? I think that any sentence of the form "(buffalo|fish)+" is valid in at least one way.

Fish isn't an adjective, is it? How would you interpret "Fish fish fish fish" as a sentence?

(Fish fish fish) fish. Fish which are fished by other fish themselves fish something unspecified.


They're starting to do this with the Vic Police in Melbourne. The police are predictably upset about it.

Some departments do that. Unfortunately the tapes sometimes get lost. Go figure.

Maryland is a two-party consent state, but even at that the United States Department of Justice is urging Maryland police agencies to make clear that recording citizen interactions with police is a civil right under federal law that can't be curtailed by state law.



I have every reason to believe that the law will develop in this direction around the country in the United States. In my state (Minnesota), recording conversations has been on the basis of consent of ONE party (as is also true of federal law for interstate conversations, as on long-distance telephone lines), and that will likely become the national norm in general.

In the particular case of police interactions with the public, the trend line is likely to be strongly in the direction of anyone in the public being permitted to record police interactions with the public (certainly in the citizen's own space or in public spaces). The trend is also likely to be strongly in the direction of state laws requiring police agencies to record their own interactions with the public, to preserve a more accurate record of the interactions. For years now here in Minnesota, it has been mandatory for all police interrogations to be videotaped, and those interrogation videotapes always have to be preserved to be part of the court record at trial. In-car cameras in police vehicles have helped exonerate several citizens here in Minnesota who were arrested by overzealous police officers (who were then formally reprimanded by their superiors). It helps everyone be more accountable and engage in best practice when police actions are recorded. Judges and legislators live in society with all the rest of us, and they like that kind of transparency.

P.S. I should probably point out that I used to be a judicial clerk for the Minnesota Supreme Court, and that some of my law school classmates are in the Minnesota Legislature or in Congress. I'm confident that the more useful technologies for looking after the police will first become generally permitted and eventually generally mandatory.

What are your thoughts on the possibility/probability of all police/public interactions being required to be recorded? What legislative hurdles remain on a state/federal level for this becoming common practice?

Not going to happen. There are a large number of hurdles to reach the "all" threshold. These include:

* undercover work will not be recorded at all times

* technological limitations. Two officers on foot. Where is the camera, for example. Also storage might be a bit of a problem.

* possibilities for abuse. for example, officer has concealed camera, visits your house, looks at the footage later to find a bong or something he didn't see the first time around, uses it to get a search warrant.

* what frequencies are recorded? Do we include near-IR for night vision? Do we include FLIR-type coverage? At what point does the video itself implicate the 4th per Kyllo?

I think the best we can hope for to start with is traffic stops. It might be possible eventually to require a cameraman on site when a search warrant is served. but there is a lot of police work where a lot of this may not work so well.

2-way consent is easy. Get a bumper sticker which says "I record police stops." The police officer comes up you say "Hello officer. I trust you have seen my bumper sticker. What seems to be the problem?"

I think Billy Murphy (a high profile Baltimore defence attorney) suggested something like that with a sign in the cab one could motion to.

> Furthermore, the recordings can be automatically uploaded to secure ACLU-NJ servers so that police can't delete them later.

Does it upload while recording, or only after the recording ends? Streaming it during recording is the key feature.

Qik does this. If I'm recording you on my phone with Qik, by the time you remove the phone from my hands, it's already too late. The video has been streaming to my Qik account the whole time, and seamlessly transitions from a "live" video stream to a recorded video when the recording session ends.

>Whether or not you agree with the app

How can you not agree with the existence of the damn app?! It just reminds you of, and helps you exercise, your rights.

People defend their oppressors every day, in every culture. Stockholm Syndrome is the rule, not the exception.

Your comment made me Google 'Stockhold Syndrome' and I spent the next 30 minutes reading about the [1] Kidnapping of Jaycee Lee Dugard. The human mind is absolutely fascinating and scary at the same time.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kidnapping_of_Jaycee_Lee_Dugard

The really scary thought is this:

All governments function on the basis of active citizen cooperation. If citizens don't cooperate, no government can stand.

Maybe what we call Stockholm Syndrome is just a more pronounced pattern that makes possible all of the social control structures that we take for granted all around us every day.

I'd say that's spot on: YOU didn't form the government you live in, you have been coerced (by force, if necessary) to follow the laws and rules of society since the day you were born.

I suspect it's an ancient instinct. There is evolutionary utility in joining whatever one perceives as the winning side, and adapting yourself to the tribe.

Someone needs to develop an algorithm or mechanism that allows someone to record their own voice without recording anyone else's speech. Most video recording doesn't run afoul of the law, unless there is a soundtrack. However, recording yourself is okay in most jurisdictions.

Several courts have found that recording police, including audio, is legal because a public employee doing their job in a public location has no reasonable expectation of privacy. The privacy argument has been used in several jurisdictions and they've consistently lost the cases.

I don't know if that will apply everywhere, but the ACLU is of the opinion that recording police when they are making arrests is always legal and always ethical, and they've put their money where their mouth is by becoming involved in several of those cases. I'm not knowledgeable enough to know if it's always true, but I know where I stand on the ethics of the thing: it's always right to record a police officer making an arrest, and it's always wrong for a police officer to harass, assault, arrest, or threaten someone who is merely recording an arrest. Hopefully the law agrees with that, because any police officer doing his job ethically should have no fear of the public seeing him doing that job.

You're spot on. It all comes down to a reasonable expectation of privacy. If you're in public, interacting with other people in the public, you waive your right to not have pictures taken of you. I don't know a place in the US that this doesn't hold.

It's not the pictures part that's tricky. When you include audio, a whole other set of laws comes into play.

The interesting questions will come up regarding people who claim to have much more power, like TSA agents.

That is an important point. The law varies across states. Some states are two-party consent states for audio, and some are single party. Courts seem to be allowing exceptions for recording where there is no anticipation of privacy but, if I remember correctly, stealth recording can tip back towards illegality in some places.

If it doesn't already, the ACLU app should use GPS data to disable the soundtrack by jurisdiction.

Maybe just selectively encrypt the audio? Perhaps, if it'd work better legally, some system that encrypts the audio on the fly, with a public half of a keypair where the private key is held by an organisation who never gets the encrypted file, and who will only turn the key over to a lawyer or court? (It'd be nice to think you could set this up so the only way law enforcement can get it without the consent of the uploader would be to have the decryption key made public, so if the cops want it, _everybody_ gets to hear it)

Where I am (Sydney, Australia), recording a police interaction is legal, but showing/playing it to other people may not be. You can't tender your recording as evidence in court without the consent of all the people in the recording, but you _can_ use the recording in court if it contradicts sworn evidence given by someone you've recorded.

> Maybe just selectively encrypt the audio?

The problem with that, is that you've still effectively recorded other people. That's okay in Australia, but not everywhere.

Deliberately not recording has a strong legal basis just about everywhere, though. Think of the example of an active microphone hooked up to an analog tape recorder on "pause." In that case, the signal exists in hardware, and is in fact being amplified. There would be no violation of the law, however. Now think of the same setup with a digital recorder that is on pause. There may be a DSP chip that is processing the input signal, but there is effectively no "recording" going on.

Either way, the penalties for illegally recording someone are a lot less than the penalties you'd get for the cops planting a kilo of heroin on you.

In Illinois, recording police was classified as a felony, IIRC (recently ruled against, although I don't know whether it's really dead). Not light stuff.

Sounds like a corrupt place one would want to avoid at all costs.

Consent is usually for phone calls and amounts to notification (hang up if you don't consent). In public states like MA recording in public is mostly about awareness and not consent. If you have a giant camera recording things they won't succeed in prosecuting you for secretly taping audio.

Attention officer: If you do not consent to be recorded, please don't stop me. Thank you and have a nice day ;-)

Which is why people are allowed to tape auto of officers with large video cameras -- the press for example.

Again, my suggestion of a bumper sticker.

Given the realities of traffic stops, I think it is entirely to be expected that police will read bumper stickers when running plates etc. It gives fair notice. Every officer will read it. And one can verify at the beginning of the conversation.

> Whether or not you agree with the app, it's kind of crazy that we've gotten to a point where everybody feels they have to make recordings of everybody else and store them in Iron Mountain just to make sure that justice prevails.

The abuse of positions of power (especially in one-on-one situations where the word of one party is taken over another in the absence of contrary evidence) has been around since time immemorial. The only thing that's changed is the technology to record. Robin Hanson has some interesting speculation on why don't see more universal recording of interactions like police stops which are vulnerable to abuse:


However, it looks like Hanson may be wrong about whether or not video recording would end up being protected:


If I'm the cop conducting the traffic stop and see someone suspiciously reaching in their pocket for an object, I'm drawing my gun.

I could see this being used as a bystander to an arrest, but doing anything short of keeping your hands free and visible during a traffic stop is dangerous.

-Guy who makes tech for cops

Where do you keep your driver's license, then?

I would imagine it's one thing if they ask you to give them your license, and another entirely if you start reaching for something on your own accord. Unfortunately, being stopped by a LEO (law enforcement officer) can be flustering and you might not stop to think about it. I imagine that the LEO basically needs to treat everyone as potentially hostile until proven otherwise, for their own safety.

I've read whole forum threads discussing how to inform a LEO that you have a concealed carry license and a firearm on your person at a traffic stop, without freaking them out. Once I made the stupidly embarrassing mistake of attempting to exit my vehicle during a stop; the LEOs got hostile very quickly and I ended up getting frisked.

> Once I made the stupidly embarrassing mistake of attempting to exit my vehicle during a stop

Yah, don't do that! Best thing is to do after pulling over is turn on the interior lights, roll down the window, turn off the radio, and then wait.

Doing that will calm the cop since he can see you easily, which can only work in your favor.

Some cops will ask you to turn of the engine, or leave the car, but most won't.

Hence the "stupidly embarrassing" bit. All the more mad at myself because I knew better -- the old "hands on the steering wheel" rule (although in that case I wasn't driving). Not sure if preemptively rolling the window down would make them nervous; I'd tend not to do that. I'd think leaving the engine on would make them nervous, too.

There's not a clear line here, no, but you're not going to hold and point your white driver's license at a cop the same way you might a black iPhone running the app.

Curious to see how this will be done on iOS - last I checked there was no way of running apps in the background.

I made an iOS version of Cop Recorder for the OpenWatch project: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/cop-recorder!/id433040863?mt=... // https://github.com/chrisballinger/Cop-Recorder-iOS

There is no background support for recording, and Apple requires you to have a "conspicuous" recording indicator. I was initially rejected by displaying a black screen during recording.

Apple's own audio recorder will record with a blank screen, which is probably necessary to keep long lecture and presentation recordings practical. I wonder why people didn't/don't just use that. Of course the instant remote upload feature is convenient (and not yet possible from the voice memo app AFAIK).

There is now? That would be sweet! I had a sleep cycle app, but I couldn't lock the phone or switch the app in ios5, basically I would roll on it at night and turn it off... (you had to put it under your bed covers near your head).

P.s. to whoever voted me down, a response that I wasn't correct would have added to this discussion!

Yeah, since iOS4, any app can run in the background for 10 minutes. Certain apps may be approved to run in the background longer. It's covered in the iOS App Programming Guide.

Here's a link to the pdf (you might need a developer account to access): http://developer.apple.com/library/ios/documentation/iphone/...

If you can't or don't want to access the pdf, here's a link to a SO answer I gave on the subject: http://stackoverflow.com/a/9738707/239074

That wouldn't be too good for lengthy confrontations...

I'd imagine a totally black screen would do the trick in keeping the app hidden, or at least less obvious.

Just downloaded it - yeah, it is a black screen. Seems that the Android app is better. I'm seriously considering getting a Galaxy, not an iPhone for my next mobile.

Unfortunately, in 2-party states you need to make it completely obvious so they can't claim you were secretly recording their audio -- if it is obviously recording audio, it is ok.

I'd just fake a login screen on the app's main page.

I just hope the cops don't respond by routinely confiscating smartphones of everyone they stop. "Sorry, but I suspect you are smuggling cocaine inside the case. Don't worry you'll get it back. Well I mean you'll get the pieces back. In three years."

They can't do that. If a cop asks for your phone you say no.

Curious to see how applicable this is in states like California where one can't record another without their consent. Wouldn't that apply to the policeman being recorded as well?

In MA we recently had a suit (Click v Cunniffe) over whether it's legal to record police. We're a two party consent state, but the judge ruled:

    Simply put, a straightforward reading of
    the statute and case law cannot support 
    the suggestion that a recording made with
    a device known to record audio and held in
    plain view is "secret."

(not a lawyer)

That only applies if there's a reasonable expectation of privacy. The sidewalk or side of the road is not a place where you could reasonably expect privacy.

One complexity is that it has been ruled that your cell phone is not a container that protects its contents, so police are allowed to search it without a warrant. This is not true, however, if it is in a physical locked container such as your glove compartment (where it is much less likely to be able to hear anything).

Its probably possible to send the recordings TO a unit inside a locked container in your car (via wifi).

I know this might limit the use-cases for an app, as well as require more effort to do, but that would be pretty slick.

Another way to protect the recordings is to live stream the audio to the internet (with location info). This way, the data is already stored online before the police have a chance to go poking around in a confiscated phone.

Maybe even make the streams available in real-time so people can listen in on live stops as they happen.

To be clear, I was bringing up this concern not to protect the recordings (although I do agree that is an interesting point, albeit one easily solved by the "stream it to the Internet" mechanism), but to point out a practical issue with using your cell phone as the recorder: your cell phone probably has a lot of other things on it, from call histories to SMS logs to photographs, any of which you might not want a police officer randomly digging through "on a whim"; hence the advice people offer to keep it locked in a glove compartment in these situations.

Android ICS has an option to encrypt the entire device.

But are you not required to give the password then?

In the US, this depends on the state/jurisdiction you are in. It's certainly not the case that cell phone is/is not a container rulings are consistent across the country

Beat me to it. Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy has tended to cover a lot of these cases going both ways.

I am not even sure how many jurisdictions have clear case law on the subject yet.

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