Video Evidence: Cloud Vs.On-Site Storage

April 18, 2019
Face today’s video storage challenges head on.

Video has become a cost of doing business in the law enforcement world. It is expected and it is used everywhere—police vehicles collect video every time their lights start flashing, body cameras document every interaction with the public, interview rooms record suspect/witness interviews, surveillance cameras capture incidents in progress, and citizens collect and share footage as situations unfold.

“We are dependent on video evidence in court to resolve situations,” reports Bryan Millard, director of public safety at Cuesta College, a community college in San Luis Obispo, Calif. “When I started in law enforcement, officer testimony, written reports and other physical evidence was all you had. Today, attorneys ask for video evidence, and sometimes cases will not move forward without it. If you want a good case, and the ability to resolve it, video evidence is almost standard.”

As video transforms policing and criminal justice, agencies also need to house this digital evidence somewhere, and therein lies the challenge. Whether a department opts to store video footage on-site or in the cloud, these storage options pack a high price tag, one that budget-crunched agencies struggle to afford. Considering this struggle, it may be surprising to note many departments are keeping the charge toward video collection. The leadership in these departments view video collection as necessary to increase accountability, restore community trust and prosecute cases.

The value and cost of video

The Spokane Police Department (Wash.) initially tested body cameras for 90 days with 25 officers in 2014. Today the agency has about 290 cameras, with 271 in use. Since then, the agency of record for the City of Spokane has collected 383,000 videos, using 139.5 terabytes of storage; a number that grows exponentially with each passing day. “Every 30 days we add approximately 2.07 terabytes of video,” reports Spokane Police Officer Ryan Snider, who heads up the department’s body camera program.

Despite seeing video evidence as a worthy investment, Snider says the department spends approximately $310,000 a year to use and store this footage in AXON’s cloud storage offering, AXON Evidence. He reports the Spokane PD has agreed to pay the company $1.5 million for five years of video storage, from 2017 to 2021.

Though it’s easy to see the value of video within a large inner-city agency facing inner-city crime problems, it is not just large agencies electing to go this route. Cuesta College employs seven officers to police its campus, which has a student body of more than 10,400 students. Its officers operate body cameras for encounters with the public; a scenario Millard has every intention of continuing. He says storage is an important consideration, but notes with just seven officers collecting footage, the agency saves money by keeping video storage on-site. “We have a strong IT department, so an on-premise storage solution makes sense,” he says. “Plus, being a small department, we needed a solution that did not have ongoing subscription costs like many cloud solutions have.”

Whether storing video in the cloud or on-site, both scenarios eat up a portion of a department’s budget, and present costs that will rise, not go away, reports Matt Parnofiello, senior business development strategist for CDW Government LLC (CDW-G), a provider of technology solutions for education, government and business. He explains, “The sources of video have expanded and are at a tipping point to expand even more. And, we’re seeing more and more customers asking for systems that can combine, manage, control, secure and share that video evidence in some way.”

Put policy first

Two main storage options exist for video: the cloud and on-site, and each puts forth its own advantages and disadvantages. But before a determination as to which will work best can occur, a department needs to back up a bit and consider its policy, reports Millard.

He explains agencies must examine the type of department they have and what its officers are doing. A large, urban department may make a lot of traffic stops and come in contact with many folks. “They are going to generate a lot of footage very fast,” he says. “A department like mine, that has a small number of officers operating body cameras, and no dash cameras, will generate far less.”

Policy considerations also include whether officers will turn on their cameras for every contact or just certain types of contacts, the level of resolution the cameras will record at, and how long the video will be stored. All factors that affect storage.

Some body cameras hold eight to 16 Gigabytes (GB) while others hold up to 64 GB of footage. Newer cameras can change their resolution from 480p, 720p to 1080p. These settings impact the quality of the video—the lower the quality, the smaller the file. Agency policy needs to determine which quality setting makes the most sense. “We kept it in the middle, at 720p, in our policy,” Snider says. “That works well for us.”

Millard recommends selecting the highest quality setting an agency can afford to store. “There are differing opinions, however,” he admits. “If you talk to someone concerned with the evidence, they would say higher is better. The higher the quality of the video footage, the higher the resolution, the more we can identify within the frame. But if I’m looking at it from a management perspective, I’m going to go just below the highest quality for budget reasons. If I could afford all the memory I wanted and all the servers I wanted, then I’d record everything in high definition.”

Another consideration that impacts storage is how long an agency keeps the files, and how that changes depending on the type of case. An agency may retain a video record from a traffic stop gone bad longer than video footage from an uneventful shift, for example. “You need to ask yourself how long you plan to retain the footage and what types of footage you are retaining,” says Millard. “You have to be very thoughtful about it, especially if you control a lot of cameras. I have known agencies that have run out of storage.”

Manufacturers are providing and updating solutions that fit law enforcement’s needs. Panasonic’s dashcams and body cameras enable officers to create a full record of every action on the scene. The company also offers a platform to manage, store and protect the captured video and audio evidence. But before every sale, the company aids agencies in defining their video evidence policy. “Instead of asking agencies, How long do you want to keep a traffic stop? or How long do you want to keep a DUI? we invite agencies to review the state, county, legal and regulatory requirements they have to fulfill, then look at the storage capacity they can afford, compare that with the number of devices they have, and the quality of each recording,” says Nathan Burns, who heads professional services and training at Panasonic.

Millard adds there are government standards that speak to the retention of video footage, and that any agency adapting a video policy must investigate and adhere to those standards. “Typically, retention is 90 days up to a year, with some agencies opting to hold onto footage for up to two years,” he says. “You definitely do not want to go lower than 90 days. That tends to be a good time period where someone will file a complaint, request to see something, or a crime will be reported.”

In contrast, Snider reports the Spokane PD keeps video footage for a minimum of one year for internal affairs and complaints. “This means if an officer has an issue, we have the video footage,” he says, explaining that a complaint can be filed for up to a year after an incident. “Our retention schedule follows that of the State of Washington, which sets misdemeanors at a year, felonies at five years, sex crimes at 20 years, and officer-involved shootings at forever.”

Which solution is best?

“Ten years ago, when the debate between on-prem storage and cloud storage first began, we expected small agencies to jump on board with the cloud and large agencies to handle it on their own,” Parnofiello states. “But what we’ve actually seen is that large agencies understand the value of the cloud. They have standards for it. So, we saw large agencies move to the cloud when we thought they had so much infrastructure that they would want to keep it on-prem.”

In contrast, smaller agencies that Parnofiello says were expected to race to the cloud, to avoid storing video on their own, have instead opted to manage it on-site. “They don’t have the policies and standards in place that larger organizations have to utilize the cloud as a platform,” he says.

Some departments remain hesitant to jump headlong into cloud storage. They may have invested a lot of money in server infrastructure on-site already or they are wary of trusting a third party with video evidence. Millard, for instance, feels very comfortable with the security of the video storage solution at Cuesta College, which is standalone and operates offline. “It gives us control of the evidence, control of the footage, and it’s completely offline,” he says. “We call it air-gapped, meaning nobody’s going to hack it, nobody’s going to try to retrieve it. While cloud storage is fine for me, I have things in the cloud and I’m not worried about it being hacked, the minute you connect a network to it, there is vulnerability. With an offline, internal system, there is no possibility that someone can hack in from the outside.”

To maintain this internal system and keep it secure, Cuesta College PD maintains its storage solution in a locked supervisor’s office. Because the college operates two campuses, one in San Louis Obispo and another in Paso Robles, the storage needed to be replicated at both locations.

Millard also limits access to its evidentiary files by managing permissions within its policy. Administrators can view, edit and delete video footage, but officers can only view their own footage to annotate the video, insert case numbers and so on. “Officers are limited to what they can do and they cannot look at other people’s videos and share them,” he says. “This prevents the abuse of what is potentially evidentiary footage.”

Cloud models, whether private, public or hybrid, offer varying subscription rates, making them a pay-as-you-go type of solution, Parnofiello notes. “More agencies are moving to the cloud because it is tough to estimate exactly what you need for an on-premise solution, and with an on-prem solution, you become a storage infrastructure manager. For this reason, the cloud is becoming the de facto standard.”

AXON and Panasonic are two examples of companies that offer subscriptions at varying storage levels. “The first question agencies ask is always, How much is storage going to cost? We work with them to talk about their needs in managing the content, their policy, and how they will use the data, which helps us understand how much storage they will need over time,” states Jason Hartford, Vice President of Digital Evidence and Devices for AXON. “Our most popular storage policy is the unlimited package, where they don’t have to worry about a limit.”

Hartford reports another question agencies ask pertains to security. He states AXON undertakes an educational effort before the agency agrees to move to the cloud. Once they understand the benefits of not managing servers, DVDs and data, he says agencies feel comfortable moving to the cloud. He adds that using a third-party provider also limits their risk; data corruption or breaches that occur with an on-prem solution are solely the agency’s responsibility—not the case with a cloud solution.

“[With an on-site solution,] they’re responsible for the security aspect, the password credentials, how they manage access to the content and how they help ensure workflows work well,” he says. “They take on a bigger part of that responsibility. They also risk losing data, whereas in the cloud there is some redundancy in the storage.”

Miller admits data loss is a concern for him with the college’s on-site storage solution. “If my solution fails, I do not have server redundancy and that is one of the greatest advantages of the cloud. If budgeting became available, I might move toward a cloud solution down the line for that reason.”

Cloud providers address concerns over security by having an encryption process in place when the data is captured, which keeps storage on those devices secure. As files are moved to the cloud, these providers encrypt the data again. AXON, which to date holds more than 40 petabytes of video footage in its Microsoft Azure cloud, and Panasonic follow a CJIS-certified workflow, which ensures they follow approved standards and practices. “Their data is secure in the cloud, it’s secure from upload to download, it’s CJIS-certified and all of that combined gives them a higher sense of security,” Hartford says. “Cloud management lessens an agency’s load and puts the burden of managing content and managing storage on the partner, rather than on the agency. We are still held accountable in terms of security and being able to pull back that content.”

Snider adds the managed permissions feature in the cloud further enhances security; no one can delete anything out of the system except administrators. “We only have three administrators,” he says. “There is also a crazy audit trail that goes along with anything done in the cloud. There is an audit trail for each user, and what they are doing each time they are in there, all the way down to what IP address they were using. Then it tracks anything they did with the video, such as viewing it, downloading it, etc.”

He adds the only thing Spokane changed to upload video to the cloud was its internet line. The department purchased a separate line through Comcast for video uploads. The department has 96 cameras uploading video to the cloud at the same time. “It’s important to consider whether your city infrastructure can support that amount of video going through at the same time, or it will shut the city down,” he says. “We added bandwidth to ensure that didn’t happen.”

Other considerations when contracting with a third-party provider:

  • Who owns the data at the end of the day?
  • How do you get your data back when you migrate from one cloud provider to the other?
  • Are there fees involved? and,
  • What’s the off-ramp path to move from one provider to the other?

Most agencies have begun to answer these questions through policy and Parnofiello expects smaller agencies will eventually follow suit. Whether an agency chooses an on-site or a cloud solution, these are certain: Video use is becoming standard, the amount of collected video is multiplying, and this footage will need to be stored somewhere.

“If you’re an officer and you’ve been tasked with the latest dash cam or body cam refresh for your agency,” Parnofiello asks, “are you going to become a storage specialist or are you going to choose the cloud?”

About the Author

Ronnie Wendt is a freelance writer based in Waukesha, Wisconsin. She has written about law enforcement and security since 1995.

About the Author

Ronnie Wendt | Owner/Writer, In Good Company Communications

Ronnie Wendt is a freelance writer based in Waukesha, Wis. She has written about law enforcement and security since 1995.

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