Abbotsford Police are likely breaking privacy laws by using surveillance cameras to monitor activity in public places, according to Drew McArthur, B.C.’s acting information and privacy commissioner.
McArthur released a statement this week criticizing municipal governments in Kelowna, Terrace and Richmond for current or planned use of surveillance cameras in public places. Video surveillance is expensive, ineffective in crime prevention and a serious breach of the public’s privacy rights, he wrote.
Police eye on Abbotsford
The City of Abbotsford does not operate any closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, but the Abbotsford Police Department does.
“We have a very small number of cameras that are in specific locations to assist us where we have severe increase in violence or to enhance public safety,” Sgt. Judy Bird said.
She said the cameras are just one tool in its large crime-fighting repertoire. Signs are posted on streets where there might be cameras, Bird said, but the cameras are rotated so potential criminals never know for sure whether they are being watched.
The APD installed cameras in 2008 on Strathcona Court, where the notorious Bacon brothers – Jarrod, Jamie and Jonathan – lived. At the time, the police said they were watching the Red Scorpions gang members to keep the neighbourhood safe.
Since then, she said, wherever crime and violence moves in the city, the cameras follow. There are several currently deployed in the Townline Hill area, where much of the gang activity has been centred in recent years.
‘This erodes our privacy rights’
But, McArthur said, the Big Brother tactics are a troubling overreach that should have Abbotsford residents concerned even if they think they have nothing to hide.
“Privacy rights are one of our fundamental democratic rights and this erodes our privacy rights and brings us into constant surveillance,” he said. “Public spaces are one of the few places where we’re not constant tracked by governments or corporations in the activities we do.”
While no official complaint has been filed with the privacy commissioner, McArthur said he would expect the Abbotsford Police force’s justifications for its camera use to fall short of the Privacy Act’s criteria.
He said the police would need to demonstrate that the cameras reduce crime, the privacy invasions are proportional to their benefits, that they have attempted less invasive techniques and the tactics are necessary for their stated purposes.
Blanket surveillance, untethered to a specific investigation, goes too far, he said.
“If they’re undertaking an investigation, they can implement surveillance techniques,” he said “But continuous surveillance techniques are typically not permitted.”
McArthur stressed that crime prevention is simply the “stated purpose” of the cameras. He said they could enable more nefarious uses by law-enforcement and government bodies.
The Chinese government is using facial recognition technology to monitor crowds and single people out. Citizens confident the Communist Party tactics wouldn’t find their way to Canada shouldn’t be so sure, he said.
“There is lots of evidence to show that the police [in Canada] are moving in that direction,” he said.
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Surveillance likely ineffective
Privacy concerns aside, the Abbotsford Police’s current surveillance program probably doesn’t even work, McArthur said.
“Cameras don’t create safety, they don’t deter crime. At best, they might displace it.”
McArthur pointed to the UK, where he said six million surveillance cameras in public places have not reduced crime.
The cameras can also have the opposite of their intended effect by creating more work for police forces, he said. If members of the public request footage of themselves, the police must provide it but also censor anyone else in the video – an expensive and time-consuming task.
Bird said there’s no way of proving the cameras have reduced crime in Abbotsford. She said that CCTV footage has been instrumental in many investigations but the footage often comes from non-police sources such as private homes and businesses.
A family member of murder victim Jason Dhaliwal, who was shot to death on Promontory Court in January, criticized the police for removing two of its cameras from the area of his shooting. The family member said the cameras had been effective in preventing crime.
Bird said those cameras weren’t working before they were removed for maintenance.
She said the APD has received few complaints about its cameras, but she encourages anyone with concerns to contact the department directly or file a complaint with the information and privacy commissioner.