The Dangers of Public Surveillance

Submitted by Cara Chellew from elchaos.org – June 2009.

It was a warm evening for January. We were in the back alleyway on our way to a comfortable Annex hang out called the Green Room when I looked up. Staring back at me were two small black eyes. Well, eyes of the video recording sort. I was shocked to realize that I was being recorded for unknown reasons.

There has been much debate regarding the use of public video surveillance in Canada. These cameras installed in public and semi public spaces like street corners and public transit are said to be useful in deterring crime, identifying suspects, and can be used as evidence in court. Public video surveillance has been used in Britain since 1980s. A few decades later, we have yet to see a body of evidence linking general, continuous video surveillance with crime reduction. It seems that there is a link in crime reduction when cameras are used to target a specific problem in a narrowly defined area like monitoring ATMs.

As recent as January 2007, no court has ruled on the legality of public video surveillance in Canada. In 2003, former federal Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski attempted to contest the legality of video surveillance in court but his case was dismissed on procedural grounds. The judge presiding over the case claimed that the position of federal Privacy Commissioner did not give Radwanski the power to launch lawsuits. This is because the Privacy Commissioner is not an official representative of the crown.

In preparation for the case, former Supreme Court Justice Gerard Laforest provided an opinion that general public video surveillance for law enforcement purposes likely infringes on an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy. This violates Section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 8 states that, “Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure”. A March 2006 report posted on the official website of the office of the Privacy Commissioner acknowledges, “The medium’s very nature allows law enforcement to observe and monitor the movements of a large number of persons, the vast number of whom are law-abiding citizens, where there are no reasonable grounds to be capturing a record of their activities”.

This means that a successful lawsuit against continuous public surveillance could make cameras on the TTC and on street corners illegal because it violates individual rights. Individual citizens have the legal capacity to sue the Attorney General of Canada.

Laforest goes on to say: “The police are often abetted in obtaining unnecessary, ineffective, and dangerous powers by the reflexive belief among many citizens that restrictions on liberty do not affect them, or more dangerously, that such restrictions are insubstantial and worth the sacrifice.” This means that we should be concerned about the intrusions on our liberty.

It is disturbing enough to encounter cameras in public spaces that have been properly advertised. But what are the rights of the individual under private video surveillance?

Cameras are popping up everywhere as technology improves and equipment costs go down. Private citizens and businesses are free to install private surveillance cameras at their discretion. The footage collected is protected under Canada’s Privacy Act and is subject to privacy laws. The office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada includes a ten-point guide for the private use of cameras. They are as follows:

10 things to do when considering, planning and using video surveillance

1. Determine whether a less privacy-invasive alternative to video surveillance would meet your needs.

2. Establish the business reason for conducting video surveillance and use video surveillance only for that reason.

3. Develop a policy on the use of video surveillance.

4. Limit the use and viewing range of cameras as much as possible.

5. Inform the public that video surveillance is taking place.

6. Store any recorded images in a secure location, with limited access, and destroy them when they are no longer required for business purposes.

7. Be ready to answer questions from the public. Individuals have the right to know who is watching them and why, what information is being captured, and what is being done with recorded images.

8. Give individuals access to information about themselves. This includes video images.

9. Educate camera operators on the obligation to protect the privacy of individuals.

10. Periodically evaluate the need for video surveillance.

Unfortunately, violations occur all the time. After all, this is merely a guide. There are no Canadian laws in place to address the ubiquity of private video surveillance. The only recourse is to register a complaint with the Privacy Commissioner regarding the storage and use of personal information under the Privacy Act. Private surveillance cameras like those recording the alleyway behind the Green Room in Toronto seem to be legal but against the spirit of the guidelines. The public is not aware of these cameras, and the range of viewing seems to be general surveillance rather than a limited viewing range.

Rolling Down a Slippery Slope

So what is the big deal? You may think that you have nothing to hide but there are some serious concerns about video surveillance. For one, studies in Britain show that control room operators disproportionately target minorities. Footage can also be disclosed for purposes other than crime deterrence. Camera operators in Britain have been caught selling tapes for entertainment or journalistic purposes. This is a gross violation of individual privacy rights.

A few other concerns that are even more unsettling are function creep, biometric adaptation, and suspicion by association. Function creep is when something that is originally intended for a specific function is then used for other functions. For example, British CCTV (closed circuit television) was installed with the intent to deter violent crime. These cameras are now used to pursue minor offences like littering and under age smoking.

There is also the fear that cameras can easily be updated with biometrics like facial recognition technology. Digital imaging technologies are becoming more attractive and affordable for governments who believe that this is the next step for improving state security. These technologies can link to databases like a “Terrorist Watch List”. These technologies are not fool proof and innocent people can be mistakenly targeted. This has already occurred in the US with the reported inclusion of innocent people on the national no-fly list.

Perhaps the most worrisome effects of societal surveillance are psychological and sociological impacts that threaten to dissolve community. State surveillance creates a barrier of fear and mistrust between citizens and citizens and the state. Furthermore, video surveillance can initiate suspicion-by-association. For example, a camera may catch an individual passing through a red light district. Camera monitors may suspect the person to be prostitute just by their associated presence in the area. Similarly, footage of association with a “terror’ suspect can label that person a terrorist. People will begin to think twice about lingering on a street corner for too long or be seen talking to a shabby looking character.

Knowledge of being watched erodes feelings of autonomy and freedom. Surveillance technology is not foolproof and there is a great risk that innocent people will become labeled and punished for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The pervasiveness of private surveillance raises the question of how well our personal information is being protected and whether it is destroyed or sold to the highest bidder. There are no existing rules or regulations in Canada to enforce the responsible use of this ubiquitous technology.

Next time you are out and about look around. How many cameras can you locate? Are they pointed at the door or at the room in general? Did you see a sign advertising their presence? This is not paranoia; this is the future.

In closing, the following is a passage from George Orwell’s seminal work, 1984:

It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself–anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face…; was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime…”?- George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 5

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