Privacy SOS

Americans overwhelmingly support body cams for cops, but Mass governor warns about privacy risks

A new CBS/New York Times poll says that 93% of both black and white Americans surveyed favor body cameras for police. The poll results arrive on the same day as a report quoting Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, a republican, warning about the possible privacy harms caused by body worn cameras.

"I worry a little bit about public privacy issues there," Baker told newspaper editors, "and I think the public, if they understood how it works, might worry a little bit about it, too."

We at the ACLU are acutely aware of how the proliferation of government surveillance cameras threatens core liberties. But as my colleague Jay Stanley explains, "when cameras primarily serve the function of allowing public monitoring of the government instead of the other way around, we generally support their use." That's why the ACLU supports body cameras, dashboard cameras, and the videotaping of police interrogations—with some very important caveats.

The key with body cameras, like with those other kinds of surveillance, is getting the policies right. Without good policies and the teeth needed to enforce them, we could unfortunately run into just the kind of trouble Governor Baker warns about. But if the political will exists, there's no reason these policies—outlined in detail here—can't be effectively implemented.

Body cameras are politically popular. We know what kinds of policies we need to institute in order for the cameras to serve as a check on power, and not a massive expansion of the surveillance state. That said, it's great to hear Governor Baker express concern about the privacy rights of ordinary people. If he wants to make an impact, there's a lot he can do as governor to protect privacy in the digital age—from supporting privacy legislation to implementing rigorous auditing and accountability mechanisms for police departments and fusion centers.

There are many critical areas where we need the Governor's support to move privacy and civil liberties interests forward in Massachusetts. But as long as the right policies are in place, opposing the implementation of body cameras isn't one of them.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.