Tuesday, March 25, 2008

My Brother’s Keeper

The New South Wales Police are now inviting members of the public to be their eyes and ears more than ever before. The latest plan is for a dedicated website where any concerned citizen can upload photos or videos which provide evidence of criminal activity. The hope is that with the proliferation of mobile phone cameras in the community, modern technology can be employed to assist the fight against crime in ways never before possible.

On the face of it this might seem like a good idea. But when you stop and think more carefully it has some significant problems. First there’s the question of evidentiary standards. Digital images are easily manipulated and the standards normally applied to photographic evidence in court would mean that a great deal of such material would be simply inadmissible.

Secondly, the experience of video upload websites such as youtube is that hundreds of millions of people upload videos to show the world. Now, the Police website is not directly comparable, but it would be reasonable to expect that if people take advantage of this opportunity to snap off a photo of every driver that cuts them off in traffic, the service could become deluged with videos containing very little of any value.

Thirdly, just how many man hours are going to be dedicated to sifting through all of this material looking for worthwhile evidence? Even now, in a community with surveillance cameras in every nook and cranny, thousands of hours of video are never seen because those cameras cannot all be monitored. Specific footage is reviewed only when events call for it to be examined. Now, in the case of the new Police website, the public themselves presumably act as the first layer of filtering by only uploading pertinent material, but again, isn’t everyone with a grudge and a camera going to be muddying the waters?

Finally, there is the vigilante effect, where some people will, predictably, take it upon themselves to police the behaviour of their neighbours. They will appoint themselves to the task of community policing, probably with limited understanding of the law, and become a nuisance to ordinary people just going about their daily lives. While we have a civic duty to report crime, it would be dangerous to have people running around deliberately looking for it.

And given the popularity of so called reality television, I wonder how long it will be before the whole thing finds its way onto TV in some form?

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