Streaming video from body-worn cameras

Body-worn cameras with streaming capabilities are allowing public safety organisations to observe incidents in real time and respond accordingly, as Kate O'Flaherty discovers

Body-worn cameras with streaming capabilities are allowing public safety organisations to observe incidents in real time and respond accordingly, as Kate O’Flaherty discovers


Body-worn video is hailed as a technology that will revolutionise public safety. The mobile cameras offer particular value to police, who say the ability to record incidents adds transparency and reduces anti-social behaviour. This is in addition to the potential to enhance safety and improve response time across sectors including fire safety, healthcare and prison services.

Currently, body-worn cameras tend to be switched on when needed, with content uploaded when the units are docked at the end of a shift. In addition, many versions are constantly recording via a ‘buffer’ facility, which allows officers to capture footage before the devices are switched on. This is paving the way for always-on streaming body-worn cameras that can send video back to command centres in real time.

And the ability to stream could be particularly powerful when combined with analytics. For example, says James Slessor, managing director, global public safety at Accenture, police are already using auto number plate recognition, which could be further utilised to ‘recognise’ criminals. “More advanced video analytics could use object detection to see people having fights. With live streaming capability, you could also spot top-wanted criminals using facial recognition on the cameras while officers are walking down the street.”

Streaming is already being used by police in countries including the Netherlands, but there is opposition from some who say the technology infringes on civil liberties. Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, says in a blog post that continuous body-worn streams “add significantly to the power of centralised monitoring systems”.

According to Stanley: “The centralised live streaming of body cameras would instantly super-charge the surveillance powers of the authorities, especially in communities that are already heavily policed. Simply put, this is too much power to place in the hands of anyone. It raises the prospect of abuse, and will create significant chilling effects.”

Body-worn benefits
Non-streaming body-worn video is an already proven technology. The largest deployment is thought to be across the UK’s Metropolitan Police Service, which is in the process of rolling out devices to 22,000 frontline officers.

The ability of body-worn cameras to increase situational awareness and assist with training has also seen the devices picked up by fire services. In the UK, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service has started to roll out the devices to see how operational improvements can be made. But the cameras have created a need for new procedures, many of these centring around the protection of personal information under the Data Protection Act. For example, people must be notified when they are being filmed. Meanwhile, those videos not retained and used for evidence are deleted after 31 days.

Police officers agree it is good practice to verbally inform a subject when a camera is filming. Inspector Steve Goodier, business engagement officer, Digital Policing Portfolio at West Hampshire Police, has advised US law enforcement on body-worn video. “When I turn the camera on, I am capturing personal data, so I need to inform the subject,” he says.

But he adds: “There is an argument that you are wearing a big camera – they are sat on the chest or head and it’s really obvious. In some circumstances in Hampshire, we also have a front-facing screen so people can see themselves being filmed.”

Inspector Tim Coombe is neighbourhood inspector for South Somerset, Avon & Somerset Police, and staff officer to chief constable Andy Marsh, national lead for body-worn video. He says the cameras reduce the need for victims to give evidence, so the vulnerable do not need to attend court.

In addition, he says, body-worn devices lead to an increased number of guilty pleas and less time wasted dealing with unwarranted complaints against officers. A study by the University of Cambridge found a 93 per cent decrease in complaints made against officers wearing the cameras.

This can also lead to cost savings. According to Reveal Media, a Paisley and Aberdeen body-worn video project in 2011 saved an estimated minimum of £400,000 per year.

Avon & Somerset Police use Reveal Media cameras. Coombe says that although some forces will choose streaming capabilities, “there is no need for us, as we do not use cameras to support our command and control function”.

Overall, he is doubtful of the benefits of streaming to UK officers on the beat. He points to the “unnecessary cost of transferring large amounts of data over 4G networks”.

Coombe’s force uses a digital evidence management (DEM) solution, he explains. When officers are on-site, they connect the device to a PC using a USB or camera dock. “Footage goes directly into the Reveal Media DEM system,” he says. “When they log on, they can then edit and clip any footage.”

When it comes to watching the footage, any viewing of video must be “legitimate”, says West Hampshire Police’s Goodier. He explains: “There must be a legitimate policing purpose: a lawful reason for doing it. The officer involved in the incident will have a legitimate reason as they may need to watch it again; there might have been an arrest. If an officer on another shift wants to watch it, they must justify why.”

In the UK, points out Goodier, each police force has its own procedures.

Streaming applications
The streaming body-worn cameras are more useful for special operations, especially in some countries outside the UK. In police forces, it is suggested this capability would be useful for firearms officers, because the devices can quickly transmit critical information to the control centre.

Police forces using streaming devices do so for better situational awareness – such as during a public safety event when “they want a better idea of what is going on”, says Bart van der Aa, CEO of Zepcam. “However, at the moment, this is most commonly done with radio, which only offers audio.”

Police special ops divisions are usually the first to get body-worn devices, says Van der Aa. He says in Zepcam’s home market of the Netherlands, live-streaming body cameras are used for large events such as concerts and demonstrations.

One such event is the Vierdaagse van Nijmegen. During the event, says Van der Aa, body-worn cameras are filming and the images streamed live over 4G to the control room. Overall, Van der Aa says the Dutch police are “far along with live streaming”. He puts this down to the fact that the Netherlands has “good 3G and 4G coverage”.

Body-worn cameras connected to a mobile network give those not at the scene a direct view of what officers are observing and improve overall situational awareness, says Jay Reitz, Axon’s SVP, software, services and security.

This allows public safety organisations to carry out operations taking into account multiple points of view. Among those viewing the footage are command staff and those positioned in the real-time crime centre, says Reitz. “They use the feeds to get a more efficient representation of what is occurring. This allows the officer to focus on the event, rather than relaying information over the radio.”

Because connected cameras allow officers to remotely upload video, officers do not need to leave the scene. “In a case of an officer involved in a shooting, or a witness statement on a time-sensitive investigation, detectives and decision-makers would gain access to videos without the officer having to leave the scene,” explains Reitz. “Administrators can more quickly restrict sensitive evidence, even before it’s fully uploaded.”

They also save IT resources: uploading remotely, there is less infrastructure needed at the agency, says Reitz.

The benefits offered by streaming cameras are seeing multiple use cases emerging across the globe. According to Van der Aa, examples include the Dutch and Swiss police, and forces in Hong Kong and Singapore. This is in addition to fire services in the Netherlands and the Middle East, which are using the cameras for situational awareness.

Meanwhile, in healthcare, live streaming can be used to manage ambulance fleets by allowing specialist treatment at the scene, says Olatunde Williams, head of field and solutions marketing, EMEA at Motorola Solutions UK. “Ambulance [services] want to avoid the situation where people are taken needlessly to A&E, when they could have been treated on-site. You need someone who is trained: streaming would enable a specialist to see observe remotely and give advice on how to treat the patient at the scene.”

Issues with streaming
The benefits are clear, but there are multiple hurdles to be overcome before streaming becomes commonplace.

The technology is not suitable for all applications of body-worn cameras. And, where streaming devices are in use, experts point to battery life issues: batteries tend to last about five hours when continuously streaming, which is not long enough to cover most shifts. However, experts point out that the units do not have to stream constantly.

At the same time, streaming devices are much more expensive than those without the capability. According to Van der Aa, non-streaming units are about €450, and streaming cameras cost around €1,600 each. “This is why they are being used in specialist operations,” he says. However, he adds that next-generation live-streaming devices will cost around €1,000.

This is in addition to technical issues when sending footage over the air – even in a non-streaming basis as an alternative to docking the camera at the end of day. In some countries, those using the cameras say the infrastructure is not available to connect the devices when officers are mobile. “If you have an infrastructure in place, that would be ideal,” says Goodier. “But currently, [UK] infrastructure doesn’t support it.”

While transmitting over 3G and 4G is often unreliable, says James Wickes, CEO and co-founder of video surveillance company Cloudview, “that can be addressed by having a secure digital (SD) card on board, which can record and transmit the data when there is coverage available”.

When using 4G to connect individual cameras, network availability depends on the jurisdiction. For example, says Motorola’s Williams, in the Middle East the approach to deploying 4G for public safety agencies is different from the UK. He explains: “The question is not whether there is coverage, it’s what the model is in the particular country.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, Goodier points to the fact that the current police TETRA network is being replaced by the LTE-based technology comprising the Emergency Services Network (ESN). “That will allow us to slice the network. The ESN will give us full LTE coverage, but until we start using it, we can’t understand its capability.”

One method being used to connect the cameras is a vehicle with a Wi-Fi bubble around it thanks to a gateway for transmitting the data back to a command centre. This is typically enabled by LTE, with satellite covering the areas where cellular technology is not available.

However, while using a vehicle hotspot may provide a more robust data connection, it would require the cameras to remain within close range to continue to stream or upload data, Axon’s Reitz points out.

For streaming to work efficiently, Van der Aa says network speeds need to reach a minimum of 300-400kbps. Video can stream at around 50kbps, but the quality would be impacted.

Van der Aa says Zepcam’s technology overcomes major issues by co-ordinating the server and device and adjusting the quality of the video based on network conditions. “We use the available space and have a stable connection as well as the best network that is available.”

Even so, there are cost implications of streaming vast amounts of video data on the move. Reitz concedes there are “some limiting factors” to fully moving to an over-the-air upload workflow. “Is the cost of a data plan robust enough to allow upload of hours of video per officer per shift?” he asks.

Another consideration is data security: there are minimum requirements that must be met when using body-worn video in emergency services. Measures currently in place include hashing or signing of video; audit logs of evidence; and encryption of data and devices.

Because video is encrypted as it is transmitted, the content cannot be accessed and cameras should be resistant to attempts to manipulate them.

Those viewing the video would be able to tell if footage had been intercepted, says Goodier. He explains: “There is hash coding on each video. If the content has been manipulated, you just have to check the hash code: it will be different.”

Future use
Body-worn video deployments are fairly new, and the cameras’ capabilities – including streaming – are in their infancy. In the end, Ben Read, marketing manager at Reveal Media, says, more operational uses will be discovered “as people start to use the devices with streaming abilities”.

He says: “In a year’s time, streaming will be fairly commonplace across organisations that have found it useful. But it won’t surprise us if some customers trial streaming and say it’s not offering any extra value.” On the other hand, Van der Aa thinks video “will become as common as radios are at the moment”. He says: “There will be an integration of body-worn video and radio technology. We are working with radio companies so you can use your smartphone for recording or streaming via an app. Smartphones have a good battery life, and they can be ruggedized.”

Accenture’s Slessor says a few companies are offering sensors and telematics able to activate and integrate with body-worn cameras. For example, an innovative application is being developed offering an internet of things (IoT) camera with a gyroscope that senses when the officer falls down and switches to live streaming. This type of application could also be appropriate when an officer draws a weapon.

Williams says Motorola is looking for ways to automate the need to live stream, rather than pressing a button. He says this could include a biosensor on a person. “If you are stressed, your heart rates goes up, or we could put a sensor on the Taser as well.”

It is likely this supporting technology will lead to more uses for body-worn video streaming. Indeed, once the technical and cultural issues are resolved, streaming cameras could become a very powerful tool.