Digital notebooks and body cameras: How tech is transforming police work

10 Jan 2020

Image: © Oleksandr/

Paul Steinberg, chief of technology policy at Motorola Solutions, describes the company’s partnership with police forces, its plans for facial recognition and more.

Any discussion about police technology can often turn dystopian in tone, perhaps immediately conjuring up images of Minority Report-esque crime prediction models or the highly invasive surveillance described in 1984. There are a lot of widespread fears – founded fears, some might say – of the negative implications that might arise from having a technologically advanced police force.

The digital transformation process in the context of law enforcement, however, is perhaps far less dramatic than outlined above. Police forces have the same attitude to digital transformation as any other organisation – they pursue it because they want to drive efficiency and accuracy, and because they want to be at the cutting edge, ahead of the curve.

Motorola Solutions is a major provider of communications technologies for police, fire and ambulance services around the world. Yet you are likely more familiar with Motorola in the context of its phone division, which produced arguably one of the most iconic phone models of the early 2000s (a model it recently revived in a bid to tap into the lucrative nostalgia market).

Motorola has actually been around for more than 90 years, and one of its first products was a car radio, hence the name – ‘motor’ and ‘rola’, as in the Victrola phonograph brand. The company broadened its communication offerings over the years and in 2011, Motorola was split in two. The consumer electronics half, Motorola Mobility, was quickly snapped up by Google in a mutlibillion-dollar acquisition, before being sold to Lenovo.

Paul Steinberg. Image: Motorola

Motorola Solutions was the other half, and is described by its chief of technology policy, Paul Steinberg, as a “mission-critical business”. Instead of consumer tech, Motorola Solutions is now focused on creating communications tools and services for public safety and commercial customers in more than 100 countries.

Latest technology offerings

In 2019, Motorola Solutions debuted one of its latest developments in its partnership with Police Scotland – ‘Pronto’.

Pronto is a digital policing application, which is in essence a digital notebook for officers that is rapidly replacing paper notebooks. This digital notebook can capture interviews, evidence and all other relevant data.

Pronto also has driver license data incorporated into it, meaning that if a citizen is speaking to a police officer and doesn’t have ID, the officer can search their name and find their license details in the database to confirm who they are.

The classic image of a detective flipping a hand-held notepad as they prepare to grill a suspect may soon be a relic of the past, but Steinberg doesn’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

“A lot of the business side of public safety is still pretty paper-based and still hasn’t been modernised to the extent you might think from a digitisation point of view.”

‘We’re very much engaged in the conversation around where facial recognition could, should and may not be used’

Motorola Solutions also ran a demonstration last year for its public safety body camera system. This features cameras worn on the persons of ambulance drives or officers, which can capture everything that transpires on an emergency call. This element of the offering is provided by Edinburgh tech start-up Edesix, which Motorola acquired in January 2019.

Finally, Motorola also has a digital evidence management platform that it calls ‘Command Central Vault’, which is an element of the Pronto system. This is where all the data gathered above is stored in a searchable catalogue, where it is processed, tagged, marked, redacted, or whatever else needs to be done to it.

5G technology

As the 5G race rages on, many technology companies are preparing for potential it has, particularly in regard to connectivity and widening bandwidth, making it possible to improve speeds and bring even more IoT devices online.

When asked whether the existing infrastructure has progressed enough to make a broader roll-out of Pronto more feasible, Steinberg said that Pronto is more low-bandwidth than it initially seems. “[Pronto is] actually fully connected to the back-end, but it’s pretty happy on a 3G connection.

“The body-worn camera is kind of like a local VCR, if you want to think of it that way. It doesn’t typically stream back today in real time, but that’s the obvious next step. I think we’re paced very nicely against what the network can deploy today.”

‘We’re looking at facial recognition’

It’s difficult to discuss modern policing technology without bringing up the controversial ideas of smart surveillance and facial recognition.

Motorola acquired Canadian video surveillance company Avigilon in early 2018. This has allowed it to deploy intelligent video and video analytics, which can be used for forms of recognition – such as by rendering vectorised descriptions of video artefacts and training the cameras to recognise “patterns of interest” in the content.

This could be used, in practical terms, to track down perpetrators or missing children. Some of these systems are AI-powered – but do not, Steinberg added, have anything to do with facial recognition as it stands.

“Of course we’re looking at [facial recognition]. Places where we would look to use it would be person search on the enterprise side. We’re very much engaged in the conversation around where it could, should and may not be used.

“We’re working with our users as well as with regulatory agencies and government officials worldwide to try to shape that conversation to make sure that we’re responsible.”

The reason Motorola took a shine to Avigilon as a prospective acquisition, Steinberg said, is because it wasn’t “just another pile of cameras”. It involved more video intelligence and, crucially, it could be processed using “edge intelligence”.

“We see the trend of moving the processing to the edge for efficiency reasons. The fact that they could do all this processing at the edge was, we thought, a boon.”

A hacker’s goldmine

Of course, with great tech and data comes great responsibility. This digital pot of witness statements, body-camera imagery and more could be a veritable goldmine for hackers, and so is likely to be vulnerable to attack.

Motorola “spent a lot of time thinking” about this, Steinberg said, and elected to build the entire command centre on a flat data management platform, supported by the company’s partnership with cloud services provider Microsoft Azure. So the question of security is not left solely in the hands of customers.

“We built a platform that is secure, resilient, and we surface the controls on the platform so that agencies can authenticate and authorise what their users can and can’t access. We retain audit logs so that when individual users do things, there’s a record of that. We spent a lot of time building in the necessary controls so our customers can be [GDPR] compliant.”

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Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic