Legality of surveillance cameras enters review process

Terrace is among several municipalities under scrutiny of B.C.’s privacy commissioner for its plans to install video surveillance cameras in two high-crime areas.

In a public letter the acting information and privacy commissioner, Drew McArthur, called out several towns and cities who have all recently submitted plans on a combined scale that he called “unprecedented” in B.C.

“These proposals all assume that video surveillance prevents crime and justifies the persistent invasion of the privacy of law-abiding people,” he wrote.

“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.”

Acting on concerns from pedestrians and business owners over public intoxication and other crimes committed in Brolly Square and George Little Park, Terrace city council first approached the idea of surveillance cameras last October, asking staff to research the costs of a system now determined to be about $10,000 per camera. Council has since voted in favour of moving forward.

“It is important to note that the city is currently in an exploratory phase, and are conducting a preliminary assessment of the potential benefits and impacts of video surveillance,” read a statement from city hall following the release of the acting privacy commissioner.

Prior to the vote last December, council was divided on the usefulness of surveillance cameras to reduce crime, but noted the helpful role they could serve in police investigations.

In just under a year, Jan. 1, 2017 to Nov. 27, 2017, they received 158 calls for service to George Little Park, including 13 assault-related and 59 related to disturbance and intoxication.

In Brolly Square, police had 83 calls for service in the same time period, mostly disturbances and intoxication.

Upon legal approval, council’s next step requires public engagement and consultation.

Until then, wrote McArthur, “my office is working with these 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 a telephone interview, McArthur clarified what he’ll be looking for.

“I’m not an expert of all the type of technology that can be used, but maybe there are also some other underlying themes like lighting and additional patrols that can be looked at. Have they looked at the behavioural pieces of why people are there, and what are the underlying issues?”

While the Terrace proposal is mentioned by name in his letter, other municipalities have issued plans seemingly far-more controversial, including the City of Kelowna, who has put forth a proposal to have staff continuously monitor their existing surveillance network, in real time.

To this, McArthur said his letter was accurate to have called the rash of surveillance proposals “unprecedented”.

“We are seeing a proliferation of video surveillance cameras not just in B.C. but around the world, and we also know they’ve been unsuccessful in the countries they’ve been used for many years.”

He singles out the UK where 6-million cameras have failed to significantly impact crime rates, he said.

“What Richmond, Terrace, and Kelowna are ignoring is that for all its monetary and privacy costs, there is little evidence that surveillance works,” he wrote.

“It’s ironic that public spaces are among the few remaining places where we still have privacy. If we surrender our public spaces to surveillance – where we all have the right to be – we may never get them back.”

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