B.C.’s privacy and civil rights watchdogs are expressing concern about police creating neighbourhood security camera registries.
Surrey's Project IRIS and North Vancouver RCMP’s Project OPTIC, as well as programs in Delta and Port Coquitlam, are offering voluntary closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera registries, to help police solve crimes.
“Residents and business owners in those cities who have security cameras capable of recording videos, are invited to provide contact details to these registries,” said a June 13 Metro Vancouver Crime Stoppers news release. “The data may be accessed by police on a case-by-case basis to obtain video evidence during crime investigations.”
Jason Woywada, executive director at the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said the move fundamentally increases and normalizes surveillance. That, he said, affects human behaviour and infringes upon civil liberties.
“Previous research does not support the hypothesis that increasing surveillance reduces crime,” Woywada said. “Yet, we continue to see police forces attempt to do just that.
“It is deeply concerning. It is not an over-exaggeration to say this is dystopian.”
BC Civil Liberties Association staff lawyer Meghan McDermott agrees.
She called it police getting surveillance “through the back door.”
McDermott said there should have been public dialogue on the establishment of registries before police started trying to use members of the public as agents of surveillance.
Generally speaking, the law requires the collection of personal information to be done with the consent of those whose data is being collected.
“This would be with consent of the homeowner,” McDermott said. “That’s not enough.”
She said those intimidated by police could be tempted to join the program; in another scenario, folks from countries where following police orders is the rule of law, without question.
“There’s a lot of concerns about this,” she said. “It’s a slippery slope. If you want to do this, do it in the light of day.”
Woywada called on the B.C. Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) and Office of Police Complaints Commissioner to take action on the registries.
OPIC commissioner Michael McEvoy told Glacier Media the police departments had consulted with his office prior to making the registries operational.
He said in an ideal world people probably wouldn’t feel the need to have cameras on their homes and businesses.
“That is obviously not the case now,” McEvoy said.
He described the registries as an extreme form of a neighbourhood watch.
McEvoy said it’s long been standard practice for police investigating crime to look for witnesses and to request camera footage where it appears available. Now, he said, police are seeking to make that process more systematic.
The concern, he said, is ensuring the data is used and stored properly. Agreements are needed with law enforcement organizations as to delineate who is looking at such images, he said.
McEvoy said his office is satisfied with the way the registries have been set out.
“The citizens themselves will make a decision if they want to share the images,” he said.
He noted the OIPC will be keeping an eye on the situation for possible future audits.
Time-consuming evidence gathering
Crime Stoppers said police having to search for video evidence of a crime can be a time-consuming process. Such registries mean police can refer to a list of owners and access the footage in a timely manner, said the organization.
Crime Stoppers said all information would remain confidential, and that police do not have access to any video recordings without an owner’s consent.
“Affordable home security alarms and video equipment have changed the home break-in game for the better,” Crime Stoppers executive director Linda Annis said. “However, programs like these CCTV registries, and Crime Stoppers, show how we can all play an important role in protecting ourselves and our community."
Use of video surveillance by organizations has been addressed by the OIPC but homeowner footage remains an area of debate.
An OIPC 2017 guidance document said video surveillance policy should identify individuals who are authorized to access the recordings, and that such individuals should only review the recorded images to investigate a significant security or safety incident, such as criminal activity.
“Any disclosure of video surveillance recordings outside your organization should be limited to that authorized by the applicable privacy law, and be documented," the document said.
“Anyone whose image is captured by your surveillance video has the right to access their own personal images, so you must be prepared to provide a copy of the relevant surveillance recording upon request. When disclosing recordings, use masking technology to ensure that identifying information about other individuals on the recording is not disclosed,” it said.