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Implications of Google Glass on fair trials

Earlier this week we considered the potential impact of Google Glass on crime and privacy. Today, we’re considering how this could affect our criminal justice system and our interaction with it more broadly.

Just last week we witnessed how online engagement can feed into this process when footage shot on a smartphone of a Mardi Gras attendee being brutally handled by police circulated through social media. Last year also saw large social campaigns surrounding the deaths of Jill Meahger and Thomas Kelly.

Two things to consider about the role of social media here are how it will affect the criminal justice process and the fairness of any such impacts.

Firstly, consider the video from last week. On Tuesday, video emerged of a Mardi Gras attendee being roughed up by police. On Thursday night, an extra fifteen seconds, taken just before the original, emerged that showed that showed the attendee trying to kick a police officer as he was being restrained.

This isn’t to say that actions in the later video justified those in the original video. It’s actually hard to imagine any footage that could come before that would justify the actions that the policemen used against this young man.

But then we just don’t know. And that’s the point.

Admittedly, this situation seems clear cut, so imagine a similar example (and, for simplicity sake, lets remove police as well) where one citizen is seen running away from a second citizen who lies broken and bleeding. Without much context, this too could be spread throughout social media. The footage is shared throughout Twitter? “do you know this man? #guilty.”

Would that be fair?

Police use footage like the above from CCTV cameras all the time in the investigations, but they generally do so without exposing the subject to public scrutiny or commentary. Only if it’s deemed significant after investigation will it shown to prospective jurors. (The police did release CCTV footage to help with the Jill Meaghers case, the result of which is discussed below).

One of the basic tenets of our criminal justice system is the right to a fair trial, which basically means that a suspect is innocent until proven otherwise. As part of that process, the evidence presented against the accused has been vetted by police and the court for accuracy and significance. These are missing in the above example, which is problematic.

In the case of Jill Meagher, Victorian Police issued pleas to stop online commentary about the accused because of risks it could affect his prosecution. This has already proven difficult to contain and will be nigh on impossible when recording and sharing can be done instantly on voice command.

That’s why developments like Google Glass, for all its impact on personal privacy laws, could have an even more significant impact on the criminal justice system.

We can’t pick and choose the application of the ideal of a fair trial. It applies equally to cases where the social masses might deem someone guilty as when they deem someone innocent.

As we discussed on Tuesday, there’s potential for these masses of data to actually increase the effectiveness of policing, so perhaps such a trade-off will be considered worthwhile. Perhaps, taken together, all the footage and audio and commentary will lead to clearer picture than individual post might, and we’re willing to accept that.