Police Top Surveillance Pain Point

By Carlton Purvis, Published Apr 28, 2013, 12:00am EDT

We recently interviewed surveillance experts from the International Association of Chiefs of Police about various issues, uses, and best practices for police agencies regarding video surveillance. Interestingly, one point that the group frequently returned to was the difficulty of compiling and accessing video from different systems. Though we will recap the entire discussion in a future post, in this note we highlight what they said was their biggest problem when it comes to video surveillance.

Too Much Media, Too Many Codecs

When police show up to a crime scene and start looking for cameras that may have picked something up, they often rely on footage from third party systems. This means they often get lots of footage, in lots of different formats. Here is what they had to say:

“In harvesting the existing video a lot of law enforcement agencies face a challenge because as you all know, various systems use various means of recording. Some people, believe it or not, are still using VHS tapes. Some people are using hard drives. Some people are using one form or another of video media. Some people are using a system where they meld 15 or 20 cameras and they use some proprietary codec to record that. So as law enforcement rolls up to something ... like that in Boston, you have to be prepared to download video from any of hundreds of different forms. This is a big challenge.”

Manufacturer Pushback 

“It is astonishing the different codecs that have to be used to download proprietary video off of these security cam systems,” one said. Video forensic investigators spend a lot of their time just keeping current with codecs. But to add to the frustration, sometimes they get pushback from manufacturers when trying to get codecs to playback video. Often “having to convince manufacturers that [we] have a legitimate law enforcement interest in seeing the video" before they will provide the relevant codec. At least with VHS, one said, all you have to do is put it in a machine and play it.

Standardization

The experts we interviewed agreed there was a need to standardize recording formats to make it easier to collect and view video, but were skeptical of it ever happening. Having all cameras support all recorders may be the closest the industry gets, one said. However, even that is unlikely to solve the problem as video is almost always exported from the recorder, meaning that the barrier remains how video is exported from that device.

Public-Private Partnerships

Public-private partnerships are one way police are trying to tackle the issue, they said. These partnerships are an opportunity "to somewhat standardize the way that some of the imagery is gathered and recorded so that both the person at the business who collected it and the police department profit." However, this is unlikely to reduce the underlying technical issues but stronger relationships with private businesses may help police get assistance in accessing and watching the video they need.

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Sharing Surveillance With the Police

For more on the process, see our tutorial, Sharing Surveillance With the Police.

Universal CCTV Players?

One attempt to solve this problem is the development of universal CCTV players. These are applications that 'understand' proprietary CODECs and packaging of different recorder manufacturers. There are not many of them and the few (or one) we have seen in the past were from the UK and focused on recorders commonly used there (but not in other parts of the world).

Unfortunately for the police, we do not see any straightforward technical or policy solutions that would feasibly address this. Anyone with suggestions, feel free to share in the comments.

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