Short Take: Hackers Killed The Video Star

Another wrinkle that was totally foreseeable has come to crush the dreams of the “video will fix everything” crowd of simplistic crim law activists. In the early days, when people started using their cellphones to create videos of things that never, ever happened before, like cops beating people for no particular reason, it revealed what we had been arguing all along. It was, to some, a panacea.

To others, it was a window to a world that had been denied forever, until it was right there, in your face, on video. Then came dash cam, and body cam, and Axon making a bundle off it after it changed its name from Taser. But still, there was video, which birthed the “but for video” series of posts here over the years.

But we also understood that there would be problems, some that we could easily foresee and others that would be far trickier, far less visible. One problem, however, has now come to pass that should surprise no one. Hackers gonna hack, right?

The Atlanta Police Department’s archive of dashboard camera video was wiped out in a March cyberattack, the police chief said.

Will the video incriminate some, exculpate others, provide evidence that matters? Of course it will. But what’s the chief to do? Her department got hacked, which is bad enough from a data management perspective, but evidence was lost.

The loss might compromise a drunken driving case, Chief Erika Shields told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV , but she’s not greatly worried.

“That’s a tool, a useful tool, for us,” she said. “But the dashcam doesn’t make the cases for us. There’s got to be the corroborating testimony of the officer. There will be other pieces of evidence. It’s not something that makes or breaks cases for us.”

Seem legit? It’s not as if there was anything else she could say. After all, the video was lost and there was “corroborating testimony,” which had been more than sufficient to convict before video. Of course, there was the exculpatory video, but she probably forgot about that.

Others, however, were not so sanguine about the hack.

But a Georgia State University law professor and a former Atlanta police investigator say the lost video concerns them.

“These days, cases are broken or they’re made on dashcam footage,” said Professor Jessica Gabel Cino, who specializes in trial procedure and forensic and scientific evidence.

We’ve come to expect video to show us what cops tell us, and its absence creates a hole that can’t be easily filled by an excuse.

Ken Allen, an Atlanta police union official and a retired police investigator, said video evidence is especially important if an officer’s involved in a collision or accused of using excessive force.

For Allen, the concern is video that shows an officer behaving properly when accused of excessive force. It can go that way, just as it can go the other way. When there are competing narratives, video can be the tie-breaker. But that’s only when it exists. That’s only when it hasn’t been compromised by hackers. Indeed, even video that remains undeleted may be subject to challenge as viable evidence when the system has been hacked.

Who can say the video hasn’t been altered? The rules of evidence still apply, and the chain of custody, weak as that may already be by Axon’s involvement, has been irrefutably broken. So it’s not “likely” that the hackers went in and altered some particular video from one of thousands of cases? Fair enough, but can you prove it at trial? No. No you can’t, whether it favors the cop or the defendant.

In the early days of video, there was still some degree of faith that secure systems would prevent hackers from doing bad things to good video. We were so young and naive then.

Shields said she has “complete faith” in the city’s information technology recovery.

Of course she does. No need to worry your pretty head about it, then.

12 thoughts on “Short Take: Hackers Killed The Video Star

  1. Keith Lynch

    In these days of fast, compact, and inexpensive data storage, there’s
    no excuse for not making offline (hence inaccessible to hackers)
    offsite (hence immune to any one fire, flood, burglary, etc.) backup
    copies of everything. The failure to do so is proof of either gross
    incompetence or malice.

      1. REvers

        “And the Oscar for the best handcuffing of a ten-year-old black child goes to….”

  2. Hunting Guy

    Unknown computer tech.

    “There are 10 kinds of computer users, those that have lost data and those that will lose data.”

      1. Edward

        You really should use a subscript 2 when you’re using binary. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that non-computer users will understand. Just my 10 cents. Oh darn, there is no text formatting available here, never mind :-).

  3. JMK

    Offline backup of petabytes of data will most certainly NOT be “fast, compact, and inexpensive.” I won’t argue that with something as important as evidence it is necessary, but it’s not simple and it sure as hell isn’t cheap.

    1. Jake

      Interestingly, Atlanta uses offline, encrypted backup of their Axon BWC data and it starts at $15 a month, per user. Data synchronization happens automatically when the officer plugs their camera into the charging base at the end of their shift.

  4. Patrick Maupin

    This is the grown-up version of “Kid hacks into school computer to give himself all A’s” But probably easier; schools have learned to expect hacking and harden their targets a bit.

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