by Benjamin Tschirhart
The camera is the ultimate symbol of faithful and accurate recording in the public consciousness. Photographs and camera footage command overwhelming respect and deference from candid, everyday selfies all the way to court proceedings. “The camera doesn’t lie,” as the saying goes. Or so popular wisdom would have us believe.
Camera footage plays a central role in criminal convictions and other evidentiary proceedings. Video surveillance is a favorite tool of authority figures and power structures the world over. A recent U.K. study reveals that the country is home to more than 7.3 million surveillance cameras, capturing images of the average person up to 70 times daily.
The official narrative surrounding video camera footage presents a clean, tidy picture. Police mine the automatically recorded footage in order to gather evidence in crimes, to identify suspects, and to establish timelines for crucial events. But a closer look shows that these recordings may not warrant the trust that society places in them. Cracks appear in the image of reliable, objective evidence beginning at the point where human users first interact with the footage captured by cameras.
A visual record is captured by one of several types of cameras: commercial security cameras, automobile dash cameras, and doorbell cameras are just a few examples. Increasingly, footage is captured by individuals using handheld cell phone cameras as well. The footage, once it is captured, has to be retrieved by a human. Closed circuit cameras often overwrite footage within 70-100 days, so if it isn’t saved, the footage can be permanently lost.
This next step is especially vulnerable to human error: once it has been retrieved, the video footage must then be interpreted by a human viewer. Police present themselves as experts in examination of camera footage; some label themselves “super-recognizers,” claiming to have exceptional ability to identify faces from video footage. These claims are then used to give their testimony credibility in court, even though there is no scientific basis for such claims. Although the term might sound technical, no definition exists for what exactly constitutes a “super-recognizer.” There is no standard that measures their ability or proves it better than average. Like many types of junk forensic science, police and prosecutors use impressive sounding terminology to convince credulous jurors of their expertise.
Often, police reject expert opinion on the basis of their own dubious claims, editing clips and still images into forms which support their preferred narrative. Video footage is held as a “gold standard” of evidence. But much like eyewitness testimony, scientific analysis has shown that it is not as reliable as police and prosecutors would like the public to believe. As cameras become ever more ubiquitous, we are increasingly watched and captured in the course of our daily activities without our consent. And while those in power promote the idea of objective, indisputable video evidence, the reality is much vaguer and more subject to interpretation than they would have us believe.
The truth is that “truth” is a very slippery concept. The cameras that watch us night and day have no agenda. But the people who use the records they create most certainly have their own agendas. And we should beware; those agendas are not necessarily favorable or friendly to us or to our privacy and freedom.
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