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FOR THE RECORD: Camera records video and audio.
Jebb Harris/The Orange County Register/ZumaPress.com/Newscom
FOR THE RECORD: Camera records video and audio.

Emergency reel

Technology | Firefighter helmet cameras ignite a privacy debate

Issue: "Bright or rotten idea?," Oct. 5, 2013

One of the latest optional gadgets in a firefighter’s arsenal: a miniature camera. Clipped to a helmet, the camera allows a firefighter to record an emergency response, as when he enters a burning house, and later evaluate his performance. The recordings can be especially useful for follow-up investigations. But now the cameras are under scrutiny in San Francisco as officials raise privacy concerns.

One helmet camera played a key role during the July 6 crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport. After the Boeing 777 jet struck a sea wall short of the runway during landing, skidded to a stop, and caught fire, firefighters cleared the plane of passengers but somehow left 16-year-old Chinese student Ye Meng Yuan lying on the ground (apparently unconscious) near the plane’s left wing. 

Battalion chief Mark Johnson later arrived at the scene to take charge of the emergency effort that was already in progress. A camera on his helmet, recording video and audio, showed that although a fire captain informed Johnson all passengers were off the plane, no one told him about Ye, whose body became hidden beneath flame-retardant foam. The camera showed a foam-spraying truck drive over where the girl lay, killing her. She was one of just three passengers who died.

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Afterward, Johnson turned in his helmet footage to fire department officials investigating the matter. They subsequently accused him of breaking department policy, which bans video cameras “in any department facility.” City fire chief Joanne Hayes-White clarified the policy also included helmet cameras used on emergency scenes. “There comes a time that privacy of the individual is paramount, of greater importance than having a video,” she said.

But some questioned whether the department was concerned about privacy or about preventing the publicity of unflattering situations. “What’s wrong with knowing what happened? What’s wrong with keeping people honest?” asked a lawyer for Ye’s family, defending the camera, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. After the paper published photos from the helmet recording and reported the department’s chilly response, fire officials backtracked and said they would review their policy.

Bribe report

Handout

Bribespot Thailand, a new Web portal, is out to shine a light on petty corruption in Asia. Within a few weeks of its launch in August, users reported 100 bribe demands in Thailand through the website or Android and iPhone apps. Many came from police officers demanding money on the spot for alleged traffic violations, such as driving a motorcycle without a Thai license. In one case a man with a broken thumb claimed a hospital wouldn’t let him see a doctor unless he paid 80,000 baht (about $2,500) up front, even though he had insurance.

The reporting service is part of Bribespot.com, a website launched in 2011 and run by volunteers. It allows citizens of Russia, Thailand, India, and European nations, among others, to report anonymously local bribe demands on a Google map. A Bangkok Post editorial criticized the new Thailand portal as useless because it can neither prove bribery allegations nor force the government to take action. But the Bribespot team says that by spotlighting bribery attempts, it can help build popular sentiment against corruption. —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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