Trend: Sharing Surveillance Video Via YouTube

By John Honovich, Published Jul 14, 2012, 08:00pm EDT

An important, growing trend is police departments sharing surveillance video via YouTube, vastly increasing the reach and probability that the public can share details that solve cases. In this note, we look at this practice, key issues in making it effective and potential legal issues.

Perhaps the most interesting example is the Philadelphia Police Department's YouTube channel that has received close to 2 million video views across nearly 200 surveillance clips. They have a "Video Villians [link no longer available]" program that showcases surveillance video of 10 criminals. Watch it below:

This program has helped solved nearly a hundred cases in a little over a year, acording to the Philadelphia PD.

Philadelphia is part of a broader trend of police departments around the world using YouTube. Indeed, a recent survey of this practice reports that over 40 police departments in the US already have similar programs.


Sharing via YouTube has a number of benefits:

  • Easier for press: Now, the media can simply get the embed code and easily put the videos in their articles, significantly increasing the chance readers see a suspect.
  • Opens up for public sharing: Bloggers, Tumblers, Twitterers, Facebookers, etc. can all easily share it with their friends. For instance, a Philadeplhia resident can share a video of a neighborhood robbery on Facebook and one of their relatives might know the suspect.
  • Easier for the police department: As YouTube is free and simple to use, police departments can share video with minimal hassle.

Privacy / Legal Risks

In most countries, even those with strict privacy laws, the police are allowed to share videos of suspects. However, risks rise when videos include bystanders, especially if facial details of bystanders can be discerned. In some countries, like the UK, this would likely be prohibited unless the bystanders were masked (see our survey of surveillance laws). That said, in many cases, this is not a practical concern as no bystanders are in the video or the bystander's faces are too blurry to be made out. Of course, this practical problem will increase as more megapixel cameras are deployed. That noted, in the US, very little regulations exist on sharing surveillance video so it is unlikely to be a practical problem for these police departments.

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