Privacy matters in the public eye

Video surveillance in public places is growing at a rapid clip across Canada. City after city is introducing or expanding it, even in smaller municipalities such as St. Catharines and Brockton, Ont., says Michelle Chibba, policy manager at the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) of Ontario.

Public attitudes are polarizing around approval of government tough-on-crime measures and concern about loss of privacy, she says. Security managers in the public sector have to walk a razor-thin line between the two in surveillance system design and operation.

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 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 park.”

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, adding it’s important not to confuse anonymity with privacy. Individuals are entitled to go about their normal business anonymously in a public place without being identified on surveillance video, he explains. But their actions in public can be legally captured.

However, the federal definition of privacy under PIPEDA is different from the provincial or municipal rules that govern video surveillance conducted by government agencies in most Canadian cities, he says. PIPEDA applies across Canada to surveillance conducted by private sector entities for commercial purposes.

And under PIPEDA, people can assume their privacy is protected even if they’re in public places. On this basis, Canada’s federal privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, recently wrote to Google Inc. to alert the online search company of her concerns should Google Street View expand to include Canadian cities and towns.

To clarify, Goldstein pulls apart the key issues in an 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, he says. “If you have recorded evidence, then the issue becomes its use and disclosure.”

“If you use the images to hurt or humiliate people, that could be grounds for public mischief charges or lawsuits. PIPEDA would prohibit you from selling the images for commercial gain. But the issue isn’t that you took a picture, it’s what you did with it. If municipalities have strict controls over surveillance systems so there isn’t unauthorized access and use, then the issues aren’t around privacy rights.”

Designing eye

As the introduction of municipal video surveillance systems is fairly recent, public misconceptions about the rules governing them 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 governments 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.

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 are 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 camera 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 taken 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. At the city of Ottawa, municipal cameras aren’t generally set up to collect forensic evidence. “We stay away from that,” he 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, baseball caps and the like.

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, says Dack.

“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.”

Rosie Lombardi is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Contact her at

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