News Public Sector
Privacy matters in public surveillance

City after city is introducing or expanding video surveillance in public places across Canada creating a polarization of attitudes between tough-on-crime measures and concern about loss of privacy.

As a result, security managers in the public sector have to walk a razor-thin line between the two in surveillance system design and operation; and the private sector should watch this space to discern trends that may influence the evolution of privacy guidelines in commercial areas.

December 20, 2007
By Rosie Lombardi


Privacy issues
In Canada, video surveillance of public places by municipalities is
becoming more prevalent. Even smaller municipalities such as St.
Catharines and Brockton are introducing it, says Michelle Chibba,
policy manager at the Office of the Information and Privacy
(IPC) of Ontario. “We don’t have a good handle on the
majority views of the public,” she says, noting there’s a split between
those in favour and against it, and that the IPC’s guidelines try to
balance privacy concerns against the public safety benefits.

As the introduction of these systems is fairly recent, public
misconceptions about the rules governing video surveillance is a major
issue, says Gregory Dack, corporate security analyst at the City of
Ottawa. “There’s paranoia about Big Brother watching, but also shows
like CSI lead people to believe it’s a miraculous cure for social
ills,” he says, adding that a significant chunk of his time is spent on
public education.

Dack illustrates these conflicting attitudes with some examples.
Surveillance of private property by municipal cameras is prohibited, so
cameras in public areas are specifically set up to avoid recording
nearby homes. But citizens are often upset when they’re informed no
video evidence was captured if a break-in or other crime occurs on
their property. Conversely, placing cameras in recreational areas such
as swimming pools also worries citizens. “People ask why they’re being
watched, and we must tell them the cameras are only turned on after
hours when there’s no staff to secure the swimming pool,” says Dack.

While the IPC’s privacy guidelines are fairly clear, there are some
ambiguous areas, says a security manager at a major Ontario
municipality who agreed to share his experiences anonymously. The
guidelines restrict the placement of cameras in public places unless
there’s a history of incidents or other justification. But the degree
of privacy to be accorded in areas such as parkland is a gray zone.
“The guidelines are vague about definitions of public property. Is the
city required to protect a pathway versus physical property? But
there’s also some expectation of privacy when someone walks through a

There’s controversy around this point, says Elliott Goldstein, a
Toronto-based lawyer and video evidence consultant. “Case law thus far
has ruled a person doesn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy
when they’re in plain view of the public,” he says ”“ but he notes the
federal privacy commissioner’s office has a different opinion. “I think
that’s dead wrong,” he says, adding it’s important not to confuse
anonymity with privacy. Individuals are entitled to go about their
normal business anonymously in a public places without being identified
on surveillance video, he explains. But their actions in public can be
legally captured.

Lack of consensus on this issue can stymie a city’s plans. In the
recent Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) debacle, the London, U.K.-based
watchdog group Privacy International lodged a complaint with the IPC
about the city’s plans for an extensive video surveillance network
throughout Toronto’s public transit system.

Chibba said she could not comment about the case nor explain why the
IPC is reacting to a complaint by a non-Canadian organization beyond
stating all complaints are investigated. In these controversial cases,
it’s important to ask some fundamental questions, says Goldstein. “On
whose behalf does Privacy International advocate? What are they trying
to protect, and why?”

The benefits of public surveillance in deterring crime have to be
weighed against the potential for infringement of privacy rights, he
says. For example, “a young couple kissing on the subway may say
surveillance is an invasion of privacy ”“ but anyone else on the car can
see them.” If an identifiable image is captured on video, this raises a
different set of issues. “If you have recorded evidence, then the issue
becomes its use and disclosure,” he says. “If images are used to hurt
or humiliate people, that could be grounds for public mischief charges
or lawsuits. But the issue isn’t that you took a picture, it’s what you
did with it. If you have strict controls over surveillance systems so
there isn’t unauthorized access and use, then the issues aren’t around
privacy rights.”

Designing principles

Privacy guidelines allow for the placement of new surveillance cameras
in public areas if there’s a history of crime. But this can be a tricky
area to handle, says Dack. “Security managers have to consider how they
want their surveillance systems to grow instead of reacting to pressure
groups,” he says. Proactive planning and a big picture view is needed
to create a system that delivers maximum security value. “What ends up
happening in many places is that a bad incident occurs, and a cam is
put in place in response. But maybe if it had been planned out more
thoroughly, it would have made more sense to place it 500 meters away.”

He cites a recent example. In response to some incidents, a camera was
placed near a specific entry point at an outdoor swimming pool to
protect the perimeter after hours. But at the end of the summer,
security staff discovered kids were using another entrance at the
opposite side of the building to get in. “If we’d take more time to
plan it, we would’ve put the camera at a mid-point,” he says. “It
wasn’t a big modification to move the camera in that instance, but we
could have done it right the first time. However, in other environments
like airports, cameras are massive and unwieldy, and it would have been
harder to correct.”

The ultimate purpose of the surveillance is also a key consideration in
system design, he says. In the City of Ottawa, municipal cameras aren’t
generally set up to collect forensic evidence.

“We stay away from that,” Dack says. “We want cameras we can monitor on
alarms in real-time so we can use the information to respond.” Even
with high-definition cameras, he says setting up a surveillance system
to collect video evidence that gets clear shots of people’s faces is
very difficult ”“ and identification can be easily obscured with hoods.
Instead, a system that issues alarms when there’s an incident and helps
track people’s movements so they can be apprehended delivers the best
value for the investment, he says.

“Video surveillance is more effective for immediate incident response
than court evidence later. The best use of resources is to assess the
situation and to protect first responders,” he says.

Audits of municipal video surveillance systems to ensure privacy rights
are a requirement in the IPC’s guidelines, says Chibba. “They must do
regular reviews of the system, be it as an internal audit function or a
third party ”“ we don’t require one or the other.”  A key issue in
audits is transparency, she adds. “People need to know the cameras are
there, and if they’re just monitoring or recording them.” Surveillance
has no deterrent value if people aren’t informed.

At present, the audit requirement is not a formal institution, and is
typically a self-audit exercise, says the Ontario security manager. “It’s up to the video
system’s administrators to ensure the system is installed properly,
that security guards are monitoring appropriately, and that it’s all
documented,” he says. “But I can see these audit requirements getting
tightened up over the next few years with genuine third party reviews.”

Dealing with emerging technology is a constant challenge, says Chibba.
The IPC reaffirmed the need for regular audits in a recent case where
images of a woman providing a urine sample at a Sudbury methadone
clinic captured by a wireless camera were intercepted by a hacker. In
its investigation, the IPC concluded the clinic had not exercised
proper due diligence in ensuring the camera’s wireless security
features were working properly. The Sudbury incident also caused the
IPC to re-evaluate what constitutes a record and related storage
issues. “Although the actual images weren’t stored, we concluded
digital replication of a live image is a record,” says Chibba.

But the Ontario manager points out that the WEP protocol used to secure wireless
devices is considered weak by industry experts. “The original intent of
those devices was to allow open broadcast signals, like in an Internet
cafe,” he says. “Higher levels of encryption should maybe be identified
by an authority like the IPC when it comes to securing wireless cameras
in a closed-loop system. People shouldn’t be relying on security
features that come out of the box for these things.”

Emerging technologies such as high-definition mega-pixel cameras may
also pose some privacy challenges in the future, depending on how
they’re deployed, he says. Cameras used for access control typically
don’t capture people’s identities. “With people-counting, you don’t get
good face shots ”“ it’s just movement on the screen,” he says. “But if a
high-definition camera can identify people, that can raise privacy

Rosie Lombardi is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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