OK, lets get this out of the way at the start and then work backwards!
What is an ‘Open Format’?
“An open format is a file format for storing digital data, defined by a published specification usually maintained by a standards organization, and which can be used and implemented by anyone. … In contrast to open formats, closed formats are considered trade secrets”
Things get a bit more tricky for the multimedia community as formats are merely the boxes that contain the audio, video and other data such as text, date/time or speed information.
The video and audio components will be coded using a codec, allowing for the correct decoding of the information during playback. Think of it as a language. If its been written in Italian, it needs to be read or listened to in the same language!
There are hundreds, if not thousands of codecs. There are also open codecs.
Now that we have an understanding of the term ‘open’, let us look at what this means to the average Forensic Video Analyst having to deal with surveillance footage from a CCTV system.
They are a small cog in the public safety and justice system. The start point for their workflow starts with the products provided by the security industry.
This is known as the Camera to Court evidence chain for CCTV.
If any of the components leading up to the Analysis are ‘closed’ or ‘proprietary’ then we hit a problem……..And, just to make matters a bit more complicated, every manufacturer can do it differently, so there are thousands of unknowns!
To be honest, it’s one of the enjoyable parts of my job, everything starts out as research and testing…but it shouldn’t be that way as we should all playing for the same team!
I honestly think that some kit has been made purely to frustrate the hell out of any investigator required to deal with the footage!
There are a few manufacturers that still use completely closed recording methods, codecs and players. There is no method to analyze and understand the original recording method and deal with it quickly and effectively within a forensic framework.
There are many manufacturers that have closed components. They may use an open format, and an open video codec, but they then use a closed audio codec, and a proprietary method for storing the date and time text information.
There are many manufacturers that use open codecs, but then store the data in a closed, proprietary format.
There are many manufacturers that use open codecs and open formats….but then ruin it all by providing a player that distorts and changes the footage when played!
Many years ago, I was lucky to work alongside those writing the National CCTV Strategy under the then ACPO lead for CCTV, Mt Graeme Gerrard. Some of the unfinished components of this should have been picked up by the Security Camera Commissioner (SCC), and the Forensic Science Regulator.
One of those Components was the establishment of standards for storing and exporting.
In the most recent update from the standards group from the SCC, there is still no sign of anything happening.
Perhaps it is in the new Surveillance Camera Commissioner’s Buyers Toolkit.
Or is it still stuck in the ‘too hard to do box’?
If so, can someone please take out!
It’s a pretty simple problem to solve…
Manufacturers will not make stuff that people won’t buy.
Buyers will purchase the products that that fit their needs.
In the middle is the shop, the installer, or the consultant…. Lets use the term now being used by the SCC – The ‘Service Provider’.
If we can empower the Service Providers with better knowledge, to ensure that only those products with open formats, offering transparency and understanding throughout the Camera to Court model are sold or installed, then the entire system will improve.
And then what happens? – the evidence gets obtained faster and is of a higher quality.
Take a look at one of the tests I completed at IFSEC back in 2014..
These problems are just a handful of the issues we have to deal with, but could so easily be eradicated if only the service providers understood what was needed further down the chain.
Now… I know that ‘some’ do. I actually work with a few consultants and am very aware that they take the Criminal Justice System into account when specifying equipment. They would not install a XXXXXXX DVR for instance because they know that it records in a closed format.
Open! – Documented, transparent and open.
Not proprietary, non-standard and closed.
This is something that has been a bane of the forensic imagery analyst’s role for many years and has only been exacerbated by the shear number of new DVR’s coming on to the market. Despite my own attempts at discussing this issue with manufacturers, many simply do not want to know, perhaps feeling that by keeping aspects of their process ‘closed’ gives them a competitive edge. Dave has again highlighted some very interesting points within his article and whilst there is little movement from the manufacturers, there is at least some possible light at the end of the tunnel, with a small number of manufactures allowing for video to be exported in an ‘open’ rewrapped (so no loss of quality) format (normally mp4 or H.264) with the addition of a separate subtitle file containing the additional time/date and other metadata. Perhaps other manufactures should take note. As we are all aware, any impact on the quality of the imagery can have serious detrimental effects on what the analyst and finally the Courts are able to achieve from the use of the evidence.