Why chain of custody is essential for surveillance video

Jan. 23, 2020
Properly preserving video and its associated metadata is essential when it comes addressing liability concerns

One of the most important jobs of the security personnel of any organization is to select, install and manage the products that will deliver on the promise of creating a safer, more secure environment. This goal begins with the solutions that are deployed on site – access control, surveillance, etc. – but it does not end there. In a world of data, all of these systems create a wealth of information that is fundamental to identifying and convicting criminals so that the threat they represent is mitigated.  

To that end, whenever there is an incident of any kind on your premises, it is your responsibility to provide law enforcement with any evidence that is relevant, including among other items video with its associated metadata. 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.

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.

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

Video Evidence is the Most Compelling

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.

The Importance of Chain of Custody

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. In order 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.

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.

A Conviction Overturned

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.

The Rising Danger of Deepfake Technology

For surveillance video, this means that any video taken on-site at the scene of an incident must be verifiably authentic in order 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.

Ensuring Impeccable Chain of Custody for 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.

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.

Risk Mitigation Depends on Taking Criminals off the Street

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.

William (Bill) Brennan is Vice President, Security Division, at Panasonic i-PRO Sensing Solutions (PIPSA).

About the Author

Bill Brennan | Vice President, Security Division, Panasonic i-PRO Sensing Solutions

William (Bill) Brennan is Vice President, Security Division, at Panasonic i-PRO Sensing Solutions (PIPSA).