Wearable Cameras on the Job, Even if You're Not a Cop or Surfer

Photograph by Alamy

GoPro cameras have given mountain bikers and surfers a way to record a sick session, but why stop there? In a world where video cameras are becoming cheaper and smaller, there’s no reason to stop collecting footage—ever. At least that’s the pitch from two companies that see potential in tiny cameras clipped to a lapel. These new rivals in wearable cameras approach the issue from opposite perspectives.

Narrative, a Swedish company that raised half a million dollars on Kickstarter last year, thinks that the logical extension of the fascination with photo-sharing sites is an activity it calls lifelogging, or taking photos constantly. The camera made by Narrative automatically snaps a photograph every 30 seconds. The company said last week that it would begin shipping its cameras on Nov. 1 and announced raising $3 million from investors. (The company also said it had changed its name from Memoto, the name it used for the Kickstarter campaign, for legal reasons.)

Vievu, a company that sells wearable cameras to about 3,000 police departments, is less whimsical in its approach. Over the past several years, law enforcement officials have become increasingly enthusiastic about making officers wear cameras, a strategy meant to exonerate police accused of misconduct and potentially help defuse tense situations. A study in Rialto, Calif., showed that complaints against police officers dropped 88 percent after they started using body-worn cameras made by Taser, Vievu’s main competitor in police videos. A federal judge recently ruled that the New York Police Department should start using cameras as part of her ruling against the city’s stop-and-frisk policing tactics.

Vievu thinks these successes show that wearable cameras would be useful to people in many kinds of jobs—basically anyone who fears he or she might one day get into a legal dispute. The company plans to begin selling consumer-grade versions of its cameras. But do people really want to collect visual evidence constantly, just in case they run into legal trouble?

It’s not a ridiculous idea. When a huge meteor fell from the sky over Russia, the Internet was quickly flooded with amazing footage taken by local drivers. It turns out many people in the country constantly record the road from dashboard cameras because police corruption and insurance fraud are so widespread.

Police departments likewise became interested in wearable cameras only after individual officers started toting their own devices to aid in disputes on the job, says James Stewart of CNA Analysis and Solutions, a policy research organization studying the phenomenon. Their bosses didn’t like the idea of the footage being out of their control, so departments started buying and distributing the devices themselves.

Chris Kneib bought a Vievu camera after seeing local police officers using them. Kneib runs a repossession company, confiscating automobiles in Missoula, Mont., and the surrounding area. The job is essentially a series of contentious exchanges in which he walks away with what had been someone else’s property, so Kneib saw the appeal of having an impartial mechanical observer. He now keeps his camera running whenever he attempts to repossess a car, narrating the encounter for posterity.

Kneib’s experience doesn’t line up with claims that things are less likely to get heated with video rolling. “I’ve had people act the same way,” he says. “The camera doesn’t change anything.” He says a man who knew he was being filmed pulled a gun on him, an encounter that ended in an arrest. Kneib tells people he’s recording them, and on the advice of his lawyer he doesn’t turn it off even if they object. “This is merely for my protection,” he says. Because he’s using the footage as evidence, Kneib says he needed software that keeps him from altering anything. That feature pushed up the camera’s price—he paid $900—but the device quickly paid for itself by helping him get a few court cases dismissed.

Vievu’s chief executive, Steve Ward, thinks that many people would find a stripped-down version of a wearable camera useful at work. Starting this month, the company will begin selling a $350 version (alongside an Indiegogo campaign that offers early supporters a discount). While it won’t have security software, Vievu’s low-cost camera will stream video straight to a smartphone. The company wants you to know it’s serious: Ward calls GoPro’s wearable cameras cheap, and the company crows that the casing for its camera is “military grade.”

“The new age is coming, where businesses are going to start shifting toward the video-based world,” Ward said in an interview. “The most inconspicuous way of doing that is having a little lapel-based camera.” He mentioned nurses, school bus drivers, and plumbers as professionals likely to benefit from constant self-surveillance. One plumbing company has already requested dozens of the cheaper cameras, sight unseen, Ward said.

Unsurprisingly, though, the appeal is not universal. People who work for someone else aren’t necessarily going to relish the idea of being active participants in their own ceaseless surveillance. Kevin Brady, a plumber in New York, is baffled by the suggestion he’d find utility in a wearable camera. “I can’t see any benefit of that whatsoever in the plumbing industry,” he says. When asked who might find use in such a product, he’s quick to respond: “Big Brother.”

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