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Does the spread of body cameras signal a rapid erosion of privacy?

Ubiquitous surveillance has long been the stuff of speculative and dystopian fiction, but as use of body cameras by police rises, so do questions about privacy.

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Seattle police officer Debra Pelich wears a video camera on her eyeglasses at a community gathering in Seattle. The use of police body cameras is spreading to keep officers honest, but how and when the public gets to see the footage is up for debate.

Elaine Thompson/AP

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Technology has made wearing a camera nearly as easy as putting on a pair of shoes, but the constant surveillance made infamous by George Orwell's "1984" raises its own set of questions. 

Body cameras offer an impression of safety in what can otherwise feel like an insecure world. One man from Florida said he started wearing a GoPro camera on his belt to get evidence his wife was abusing him, WSTP News reports. Michael Novak said he hopes video can help him in a custody battle, since courts generally believe women – and not men – are the victims of domestic violence.

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Mr. Novak's video has already led police to arrest his wife. A Help Guide for men suffering domestic abuse recommends getting photographic evidence of abuse so it is believed, and a GoPro could be the next step forward. 

Body cameras for police officers are another rising issue. A string of controversial police killings left many Americans wishing for objective evidence about violent incidents. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) supports use of police body cameras, with boundaries and checks needed to protect the privacy of officers and civilians. 

"Although we at the ACLU generally take a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras in American life, police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers," the ACLU wrote in a report. 

But the ACLU also suggests the body cameras can negatively impact privacy. Officers may not want their supervisors listening to friendly chats during breaks, and urban neighborhoods where officers patrol by walking the streets would become subject to near-constant surveillance of daily activities.  

Funding is becoming available for police departments around the country to purchase and use body cameras. The US Department of Justice gave $23 million to police departments that want body cameras Wednesday, Tech Times reports. Most of the money went directly to local police agencies, but $2 million went to departments that will research how the cameras affect public perception. 

And now another important has been asked: Who gets to watch the footage? "Revenge porn" is being outlawed across the country and Edward Snowden's leaks about government surveillance have already left Americans feeling exposed. Will cameras on every police car futher erode privacy for average citizens? 

The police department in Phoenix, which will receive some research funding, participated in a study last year by Arizona State University. The study found that although videos were difficult to use in court because of the time needed to review them, officers who wore cameras received far fewer complaints from the public. The main downsides were that body cameras increased police paperwork, and fears from officers that footage would be used against them.

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A study by police in the United Kingdom found that when police wore body cameras, crime decreased by 26 percent, court cases were settled more quickly, and both complaints and assaults against officers decreased.