CCTV: authentication of evidence and the need for a universal viewer

CCTV: Authentication of evidence

If we believed everything we saw in the media, video evidence is everywhere. All you need to do to solve a crime (which, conveniently, will have been committed in full view of a CCTV camera) is retrieve the footage, watch it, then confront the suspect with it. Cue confession, conviction, and high-fives all round. Right? 

Well, not exactly. 

The reality is that individuals working with CCTV video evidence throughout the law enforcement system face an ever-widening range of problems, from retrieval to replay, from sharing to authentication. Before the footage goes anywhere near a courtroom, the criminal justice community must overcome a great number of obstacles involved in every step of using CCTV as evidence. And with the proliferation of CCTV DVR formats showing no signs of slowing down, the problem is only getting worse. 

As the UK Home Office states, CCTV plays a significant role in protecting the public and assisting the police in the investigation of crime.  But CCTV evidence can only be of value if law enforcement staff know how to extract and analyse the footage in the first place. With an estimated 5.9m CCTV units in the UK, the process of locating active CCTV DVRs alone can be an arduous task. Privately-owned CCTV units outstrip those held by police and local government by an estimated 70 to 1, which goes some way to explaining why little standardisation of format exists. 

Not only are there thousands of DVR formats in use, but it is now very cheap to store months-worth of HD-CCTV footage on hard-drives. With so many DVR formats requiring their own decoders, it’s not hard to see why recovering and replaying CCTV evidence can often lead to significant delays in dealing with crimes. During the aftermath of the Boston bombings of 2013, for example, analysts needed to trawl through thousands of hours of video evidence

Ensuring the authentication of CCTV evidence is a specialist job, and traditionally, this task has fallen to police forensic departments. But although both surveillance coverage and the number of CCTV DVRs in use are increasing, police funding and the number of trained technical staff is not, and that means bottle necks are developing.

Even when the footage has been successfully retrieved and viewed, with relevant sections itemised and authenticated, it is often the case that the wider criminal justice system (including lawyers, the CPS, and courts) have difficulty in both playing back and judging the admissibility of CCTV evidence. Each different DVR system requires the installation of the manufacturer’s software. And each variation requires training and orientation of staff before they can understand how to use and interact with what’s on the screen.  

So what’s the solution?

After consulting extensively about the problem with police specialists and the Home Office, Sira set about creating the solution. What was needed was a universal CCTV player, something that offered a standard user interface and would make quick work of viewing and interacting with dozens of CCTV formats at once. 

The primary requirement, before we even wrote the first command, was that our viewer would preserve evidential quality. What matters most is admissibility, and without guaranteeing the authentication of CCTV evidence and ensuring the integrity of associated metadata, other functionality is irrelevant. But once that essential condition was fulfilled, our research told us that a universal viewer of CCTV evidence needed to be:

•    Simple for non-specialist staff to install, use and navigate
•    Compatible with any authorised computer
•    Able to deal with multiple camera streams
•    Affordable to implement throughout the organisation
•    Future proof, without additional expensive hardware maintenance
•    Quickly scalable (in the event of mass viewing of footage being required) 
•    Capable of dealing with thousands of CCTV formats 

How will a universal CCTV viewer help police?

Current procedures often involve law enforcement staff travelling to video labs to seek help in recovering and viewing crime-scene evidence. Without even considering the costs involved, this process is costly in officer’s time, often necessitating return visits.

With SiraView, seized footage can be viewed locally, by unlimited users on their own computers, with minimal training. CCTV evidence from thousands of DVRs can now be compared and shared easily with no need to laboriously switch between each manufacturer’s proprietary viewer. No more outsourcing to labs; no need for officers to be familiar with hundreds of different players with variable functionality and integrity. In many cases, rather than bailing suspects to return when video evidence becomes available, a more efficient viewing system enables officers to disclose key evidence during interview. This can often lead to an early plea and therefore lead to further savings in time and money.

Viewing CCTV video evidence in court

Courts can view the video evidence in its original form using SiraView.  Court staff, who are often not technically skilled, will become familiar with the common functionally and will be confident in its use.  Complex cases containing CCTV from multiple systems can be easily reviewed, speeding up court proceedings.  And again, using the original footage without conversion to a different format maintains the evidence’s integrity, which is crucial all the way through to court.  

SiraView also lends itself to integration into the growing development of digital case file systems and repositories. Relevant clips in the original format can be viewed by many staff, with the original master disc in secure storage.

A universal CCTV viewer: intuitive, cost-effective, reliable.  

Increasingly, using CCTV as evidence is a crucial tool of law enforcement, whether tackling complex major crime or low-level volume incidents. Individuals across the system need fast, reliable access to high-quality evidence that can be collected quickly and efficiently, without the need for costly expert-level training and understanding of information technology.  

That’s the solution SiraView offers. Using the universal viewer and understanding how to recover the CCTV footage quickly, will equip police departments, CPS and the courts to investigate and process more offences with greater efficiency. All told, that means more criminals brought to justice more quickly.