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Technology Untangled: Smartphone app allows discreet recording

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technology-bourI caught a story in the news recently about a smartphone application intended to discreetly record citizen encounters with the police. The application was being touted by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. I offer no legal or political opinions here concerning the practice of recording the police while they are doing their jobs. My curiosity arose from an interest in the technology that makes this possible. I simply wanted to investigate how it worked. Today’s review focuses on the technology of smartphone recording apps.

Specifically, the Android application in question is “Police Tape” from ACLU-NJ. It is a free download from the Google Play Store. At first glance, it appeared to be nothing more than a repackaging of the video camcorder app that came with my phone. The audio recorder feature looked to be about the same as many of the other free recorder apps available for download. So how is Police Tape any different or better than other similar apps? There are several distinctions.

First, since this application comes via the ACLU, all the political and legal overtones come along with the technology. The mission is clearly one of policing the police using what has been described as “reverse surveillance” technology. The opening screen of the app shows just three buttons: record audio, record video and know your rights. The latter provides short instructions about how to handle different encounters with the police. Note that this app and the accompanying information are specifically tailored for New Jersey law. I do not know any details concerning the legality of secretly recording the police, or anyone else, in Indiana.

Second, the recordings are designed to take place in the background so the police won’t easily notice them. Pressing the audio record button flashes a quick “recording started” notification, then the phone display reverts to a normal-looking mode; all the while, the recording continues to roll. To stop it, you have to specifically navigate back to the application launch icon and press it. For video, pressing the record button gives an audible beep and then the screen is supposed to go black, as if the phone is sleeping. To stop the recording, you either press the back button three times or the home key once. Again, there is a beep, which doesn’t seem very secretive to me. Curiously, on my Motorola Droid 2 the screen did not go to black, but continued to show the scene being recorded. That’s not secretive at all. I did find and download a virtually identical sister application called OpenWatch Recorder that did properly black out the screen. OpenWatch, in fact, did the development work for the ACLU-NJ app.

Third, the tech twist that takes this application beyond a standard audio or video recording app is its designed-in ability to anonymously upload the audio or video stream directly to a watchdog organization. At the conclusion of a recording, a popup screen offers the option to upload for examination and archiving by ACLU-NJ. You can do this immediately or wait until later. You also have the option to type in additional information about the uploaded incident. Clips of significance will be cleaned up, enhanced and edited to remove any names or identifying info, and then may show up on the OpenWatch website.

Here are some other technical details about making recordings. I found that an incoming or outgoing call will suspend the audio recording, but it continues again after you hang up. The phone conversation is not recorded. This means that you cannot use this application to secretly record phone calls. Negotiating a call while in the middle of recording a video simply ends that recording; it does not resume. One piece I read suggested that the recordings were secretly stored on your phone in such a way that made it more difficult for an officer to find the files and delete them. I disagree. They are easily found in a folder on the external memory card called “Recordings.”

The audio recording fidelity is not very good. There are other audio recorder apps that will record in higher quality formats and at better sample rates. I expect the low fidelity was a choice made to maximize available record time. But in my opinion, if you are going to all the trouble to capture some important recording, you ought to capture the sound at the best quality your recording device will allow. The audio that is recorded during a video recording sounds much better. The video it captured on my phone is also good, recording at 29 frames per second at a 720 X 480 resolution.

Police Tape is currently available only for Android. An iPhone app is coming soon. OpenWatch works with both platforms. You can learn more at www.aclu-nj.org and www.openwatch.net.•

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Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

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  1. The ADA acts as a tax upon all for the benefit of a few. And, most importantly, the many have no individual say in whether they pay the tax. Those with handicaps suffered in military service should get a pass, but those who are handicapped by accident or birth do NOT deserve that pass. The drivel about "equal access" is spurious because the handicapped HAVE equal access, they just can't effectively use it. That is their problem, not society's. The burden to remediate should be that of those who seek the benefit of some social, constructional, or dimensional change, NOT society generally. Everybody wants to socialize the costs and concentrate the benefits of government intrusion so that they benefit and largely avoid the costs. This simply maintains the constant push to the slop trough, and explains, in part, why the nation is 20 trillion dollars in the hole.

  2. Hey 2 psychs is never enough, since it is statistically unlikely that three will ever agree on anything! New study admits this pseudo science is about as scientifically valid as astrology ... done by via fortune cookie ....John Ioannidis, professor of health research and policy at Stanford University, said the study was impressive and that its results had been eagerly awaited by the scientific community. “Sadly, the picture it paints - a 64% failure rate even among papers published in the best journals in the field - is not very nice about the current status of psychological science in general, and for fields like social psychology it is just devastating,” he said. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/aug/27/study-delivers-bleak-verdict-on-validity-of-psychology-experiment-results

  3. Indianapolis Bar Association President John Trimble and I are on the same page, but it is a very large page with plenty of room for others to join us. As my final Res Gestae article will express in more detail in a few days, the Great Recession hastened a fundamental and permanent sea change for the global legal service profession. Every state bar is facing the same existential questions that thrust the medical profession into national healthcare reform debates. The bench, bar, and law schools must comprehensively reconsider how we define the practice of law and what it means to access justice. If the three principals of the legal service profession do not recast the vision of their roles and responsibilities soon, the marketplace will dictate those roles and responsibilities without regard for the public interests that the legal profession professes to serve.

  4. I have met some highly placed bureaucrats who vehemently disagree, Mr. Smith. This is not your father's time in America. Some ideas are just too politically incorrect too allow spoken, says those who watch over us for the good of their concept of order.

  5. Lets talk about this without forgetting that Lawyers, too, have FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND ASSOCIATION

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