Solving the Challenges

Beyond solving crimes, surveillance video can serve as client’s protection against liability

Security managers, CSOs and other personnel tasked with mitigating risk at an organization are the first link in a long and vitally important chain. Starting at the surveillance camera and running all the way through to a criminal conviction or acquittal, this chain can be considered critical infrastructure for keeping all individuals safer and more secure.

As a security professional, you choose to purchase and deploy solutions and products based on their ability to solve the problems that are specific to your organization. You need to be able to discover unfolding incidents, alert personnel to problems and identify individuals involved in criminal actions, among other things. Still, your responsibility as the first link in that important chain goes further.

Securing a Conviction

In order to ensure that the information generated by cameras, readers and other devices can be used by law enforcement to get that conviction, it must be usable and admissible as evidence in a criminal trial. For that to happen, there must be a verifiable chain of custody that goes from your camera all the way through to the presentation of evidence. For electronic security devices, the chain of custody is dependent on data.

Today’s security systems create a wealth of information that is fundamental to identifying and convicting criminals so that the threat they represent is mitigated. For surveillance cameras, this information includes both the video itself and its associated metadata.

Beyond solving crimes, your surveillance video and metadata can also be a vital piece of information when it comes to liability – both your organization’s and your own – in civil lawsuits.

Surveillance metadata contains a wide variety of information relating to the video itself. This may include time and date stamps, location, and any analytics content such as a license plate identified by LPR technology or the identity of an individual verified by facial recognition software. While the video itself is crucial to understanding the unfolding of events in perspective, the metadata is equally important for the critical intelligence it delivers to law enforcement – including its ability to verify a chain of custody.

Video information is extremely important as it often provides some of the strongest evidence available to help identify, arrest, indict and convict. There have been many cases over the past years which have turned on surveillance or other video footage. In some situations, the video cements the prosecution’s case, while in others it provides the evidence needed to exonerate an innocent person. Either way, it has become one of the most important avenues of investigation for the visual confirmation it provides.

When surveillance video is used as evidence in a criminal or civil proceeding, it is not enough to simply play the footage for the court. While the video itself may be highly informative and compelling, on its own it may not be considered acceptable as evidence. For it to be useful, like all evidence there must be a demonstrable chain of custody for surveillance video.

Chain of custody is a term of art which refers to the verifiable and documented handling of evidence. Every piece of evidence in a crime is subject to tampering, altering or falsifying in some way. Every Step of the Way

To ensure proper chain-of-custody protocol is followed, law enforcement officers are responsible for maintaining and documenting evidence at every step of an investigation. They must be able to show who collected, handled, transferred, or analyzed each piece of evidence, beginning at the crime scene itself.

The following example will illustrate the importance of this. In 2018, the Supreme Court of South Carolina overturned an earlier conviction and sentence on a charge of trafficking crack cocaine. After the suspect was stopped by two police cruisers for speeding, cocaine was discovered in a bag inside his vehicle. During the criminal trial, defense counsel was able to show that the chain of custody of the cocaine had been disrupted, and there was not a clear possession between its discovery and its placement in the police department’s evidence locker.

After the state failed to provide a complete chain of custody of the evidence, the Court ruled that the evidence was inadmissible. The perpetrator, who had originally been convicted in 2015, walked out of prison.

In any criminal case, a vigilant defense attorney will make chain of custody a central point of their defense if they can establish any doubt or weakness in the chronology or authenticity of evidence. For this reason, it is important to make sure that any security products or solutions you deploy offer the kinds of verifications needed to help confirm the veracity of the data they provide.

For surveillance video, this means that any video taken on-site at the scene of an incident must be verifiably authentic for it to be considered acceptable as evidence. This is particularly relevant for right now, as bleeding-edge technology has enabled the astonishingly realistic counterfeits known as deepfakes.

Deepfakes are videos that replace the face of one person with another using artificial neural networks. Using this technology, it is possible to make any individual appear to be saying anything at all; for example, a CEO could be shown making racist or explicit comments. With this new threat, chain of custody becomes even more of a critical issue for surveillance video.

The best video surveillance solutions ensure that all video and audio captured during an event are protected and securely stored, creating evidence files that are easily managed and validated. This should be equally true for the metadata contained within the video, which as noted can be a highly significant element of the evidence needed for court. The chain of custody should be automatically logged by the system, making it easy and fast to comply with any requested audits and documentation.

A Complex Function

In order to demonstrate that the files have not been tampered with, it is ideal to have the video stored in a proprietary and encrypted format. Hashing, a complex function used to defeat hacking, is another strong protection for stored video. When a specific piece of video is needed, you should be able to pull an unencrypted copy, redacted as needed, without affecting the integrity and authentication of the original. Each required redaction and edit should happen on a separate tracked file, so that it is possible to trace all changes.

Most organizations are now moving towards some type of combination of local and cloud storage rather than keeping all video on local servers. Cloud storage delivers both cost and time savings and makes it more convenient to retain video for much longer periods of time.

This is essential as it may be years between the time when an incident takes place and the need for specific evidence in an arrest or trial. In order to best retain video, it makes sense to use a hybrid solution that automates storage and archiving while preserving all verification of evidence.

Ultimately, the accountability for risk mitigation at any organization falls to the security department, IT and the C-suite. All three are similarly potential targets for personal liability in the case of any criminal activity. This considerable responsibility includes being tasked with the ability to maintain video evidence that is impeccable and unimpeachable.

By choosing a video surveillance solution that enables spotless storage, archiving and transferring, you can minimize any potential chain of custody issues that could invalidate the video as evidence. It’s the most responsible way to manage video documentation across your entire organization.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Security Today.

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