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Hackers Help Seattle Police Launch YouTube Channel for Redacted Bodycam Videos

Techies helped the Seattle Police Department develop software that would quickly blur faces and mute voices from footage before it’s released publicly.

by VICE News
Feb 26 2015, 7:35pm

Image via YouTube

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The Seattle Police Department has launched a YouTube channel that will feature regularly released redacted body and dashboard camera footage taken by its officers. 

The channel, SPD BodyWornVideo, will showcase videos that have been redacted by new software that allows the agency to quickly blur some faces and mute or muffle voices from footage before it is released to the public. A group of hackers are behind the software, which was developed in response to the department's growing need to quickly fulfill public disclosure requests for video, while also protecting people's privacy.

In the last five years, the department said it has gathered 1.5 million videos from vehicle dashboard cameras, victim and suspect interviews, and responses to 911 dispatch calls, which has amounted to a total of 364 terabytes of data, according to a Seattle Times report

The department's Chief Operating Officer Mike Wagers claims that the new software will help tackle privacy concerns that have emerged as the department boosts efforts to meet public information requests for the videos, which have to be individually redacted frame-by-frame. Currently, the department has been producing 7,000 DVDs a month in response to public requests.

Timothy A. Clemans was among a group of volunteer hackers who helped develop the software. 

In November 2014, Clemans had initially filed more than 30 public disclosure requests with the department seeking 911 calls, videos, and written incident reports, in an effort to highlight policy problems that could result from the city's new six-month bodycam pilot initiative.

But Clemans later dropped the requests after Wagers agreed to meet him and discuss the issues at hand. Clemans also requested to work with the agency to develop the redaction software, which was first tested on several bodycam videos taken during January's Martin Luther King Jr. Day protests in Seattle. These videos are currently the only ones available on the YouTube channel.

The department later hosted a "hackathon" in December to solicit help from others in the tech community to improve on the base software developed by Clemans. 

Seattle plans to eventually outfit more than 1,000 of its officers department-wide with bodycams, and this week, the city council passed a resolution to address privacy concerns that would arise from use of the technology.

The Seattle police department's program is paving the road for other cities wanting to equip officers with bodycams, and the US justice department has asked Wagers to work with other agencies to develop policies that would help ease the implementation of those plans.