The B.C. privacy commissioner has turned its attention to Kelowna for its use of surveillance cameras.
Drew McArthur, acting Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C., wrote an open letter saying recent efforts in Terrace, Richmond and Kelowna to apply more camera surveillance in public places are an invasion of privacy and it’s unclear yet whether the efforts are lawful.
“These proposals all assume that video surveillance prevents crime and justifies the persistent invasion of the privacy of law-abiding people who are just going about their day-to-day business,” said McArthur.
“My office is working with those municipalities to determine whether any of these proposals are lawful, which remains to be seen.
“A key question we will ask is whether a less privacy-invasive option was attempted.”
In December the city approved $30,000 of funding per year, for the next three years, to keep eyes on CCTV cameras that already have their lenses panned to areas like the parkades, Queensway Transit Exchange, City Hall, as well as the Stuart Park and Kasugai Garden public washrooms during operational hours, said Lance Kayfish, the city’s risk manager.
Funding followed a summer-long pilot program that had cameras monitored 24 hours a day, seven days per week and amounted to 425 coordinated responses to emergent situations involving criminal activity, mischief, loitering and vandalism.
What’s more, Kayfish said that it’s not only being used to deter crime and vandalism, it also was effective in medical emergencies, such as overdoses.
“We believe we’re being lawful,” said Kayfish. “In the Privacy Commissioner’s own guideline it says that surveillance systems used in conjunction with suspicious incidents are more effective and appropriate than un-monitored systems.”
While the city sees the value, the privacy commissioner clearly doesn’t share that view.
“At first blush it’s an easy way to appear to address public safety issues, rather than take on the more difficult challenge of the social ills from which crime arises, said McArthur.
“But what Richmond, Terrace, and Kelowna are ignoring is that for all its monetary and privacy costs, there is little evidence that surveillance works.”
In 2001, then privacy commissioner David Loukidelis reported that pervasive use of video surveillance had little or no effect on reducing crime and McArthur said nothing has changed since then.
“We must learn from the experience in other jurisdictions, such as the UK, where over six million cameras (one for every ten people) have not significantly reduced crime in urban centres,” he said.
“Cameras are particularly poor at deterring violent crime, as those acts occur spontaneously and the perpetrators are not concerned with getting caught, on video or otherwise. Every blurry image we see on the news of a crime being committed was a crime that was not prevented by video surveillance.
“While the benefits of video surveillance are hypothetical, the harm it presents to the privacy of British Columbians is real, and will only be amplified by increasingly sophisticated facial recognition technology and big data analyses identifying and following us from camera to camera.”
He makes the point that most of our life is surveilled with our online entrenchment and physical spaces are among the scarce untraceable places left for us to be and to express ourselves.
“It is ironic that public spaces are among the few remaining places where we still have privacy,” he said. “If we surrender our public spaces to surveillance–where we all have the right to be–we may never get them back.”
Those who are concerned with video surveillance are asked to make a call to the privacy commissioner.
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