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Just How Bad Is It Anyway?

  • February 16, 2015
  • Clayton Rice, Q.C.

Surveillance. Unregulated. Everywhere. Everyone knows. Everyone has an opinion. Many of us care about it because we talk about it and write about it. And we talk about it and write about it incessantly. The “IT” I will discuss is surveillance by closed-circuit television (CCTV).

What is closed-circuit television? It is the use of video cameras to transmit a signal to a specific place on a limited number of monitors. It is different from broadcast television in that the signal is not openly transmitted. It has been around for a long time. The first CCTV system was installed by Siemens AG at Test Stand VII in Peenemunde, Germany, in 1942 to observe the launching of V-2 rockets. The term CCTV is now most often applied to surveillance in public areas such as airports, banks and convenience stores. But the explosion of its use in the twenty-first century extends to private property and institutions. It is universal and relentless. How did we get here? And just how bad is it anyway?

On July 10, 2013, the London Evening Standard reported that up to six million CCTV cameras were operating in Britain in places ranging from trains to sewage plants to stud farms. Research conducted by the British Security Industry Association (BSIA) showed that cameras monitoring the Underground, roads and universities were predominately controlled by the police and other public authorities. It was estimated that there were 70 times more cameras operated by private businesses. David Barrett, the Home Affairs Correspondent for The Telegraph, commented that the BSIA estimated that there were 750,000 cameras in “sensitive locations” such as hospitals, care homes and schools. Mr. Barrett quoted Nick Pickles, director of the privacy campaign Big Brother Watch who said: “This report is another stark reminder of how out of control our surveillance culture has become…We are being monitored in a way that few people would recognize as part of a healthy democratic society.” The BSIA research followed the introduction of government guidelines to control the use of state cameras in the Home Office’s Protection of Freedoms Act.

But statistical revelations had no impact on Britain’s surveillance society. On January 23, 2014, Nick Hopkins reported in The Guardian that the number of police CCTV cameras monitoring the roads in Britain almost doubled, “…in the last three years, giving police forces and the intelligence agencies access to up to 26 million images a day…”.  Mr. Hopkins summarized these stupefying numbers as follows: “A national database that stores pictures taken by the automated number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras currently has 17 billion images in its archive – thought to be the biggest of its kind anywhere in the world…Although there is no specific police target, forces believe it should be possible to read and store between 50 million and 75 million ‘reads’ a day by 2018.”

Professor William G. Staples, in Everyday Surveillance: Vigilance and Visibility in Postmodern Life (2014), described Britain’s surveillance society this way, at p. 74: “Today, Great Britain leads the world in the use of public surveillance cameras, especially when one takes into consideration the size of the population: there are nearly two million police cameras in public spaces in the United Kingdom, which averages to about one camera for every thirty-two people and a typical citizen being seen by as many as seventy CCTV cameras a day.”

Statistics in Canada are difficult, if not impossible, to find. But the ubiquity of surveillance by CCTV is no less ominous. Anywhere we go is susceptible to monitoring and recording. A notice posted in Calgary light rail transit cars warns passengers that they are under audio and visual surveillance. Shopping malls, markets, medical clinics, apartment buildings, book stores, gas stations and coffee shops are all captured by the little round semi-globe hiding somewhere in plain view. Canadians know it. They just don’t seem willing to spend money to study it. In A Report on Camera Surveillance in Canada (2009) by Surveillance Camera Awareness Network (“SCAN Report”), funded in part by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, the authors said this, at p. 11: “It is difficult to know exactly the current number of open-street surveillance in Canada because the systems are in frequent flux, depending on the local situations.”

Canadians seem hopeful that CCTV will deter crime but they lack any hard data to bolster their hopes. The SCAN Report reached these conclusions, at pp. 4-5: “Despite the growth in CCTV, there is no convincing research evidence that it aids in deterring, responding to and investigating crime…Claims about the benefits of camera surveillance for ‘national security’ are privileged. Adding the threat of terrorism to the mix of ills that camera surveillance can counter constrains public debate as participants do not enjoy an equal ability to challenge the validity of claims made by the State…The public largely presumes, or even hopes for usefulness: cameras are seen as worth installing even if they will generally not be useful, on the hope that they might prove useful eventually.”

These, then, are the arguments favouring the use of CCTV by government and the private sector. CCTV deters crime. Surveillance makes us safer. It catches terrorists. None of these arguments can be sustained. The data does not show that closed-circuit television deters crime and I don’t know of one terrorist plot that was foiled by TV. Julia Angwin, in Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance (2014) said this about the studies, at p. 45:

“The few studies that have used control groups show little support for the theory that cameras can prevent crime. [An]…Urban Institute study from 2011 analyzing the impact of surveillance cameras on crime in parking lots – and using a randomized controlled trial method – showed that the cameras made no real difference. The study compared a year’s worth of car-related crime in twenty-five parking lots near Metro stations in Washington, D.C., that had installed motion-activated cameras with identical crimes in twenty-five similar ‘control’ parking lots with no cameras installed. Although these were digital still cameras, researchers posted signs that gave the impression of constant camera surveillance of the parking lot. The study found that ‘the cameras had no discernible impact on crime’.”

Ms. Angwin goes on to say that some evidence suggests that streetlights are as effective at deterring crime, at pp. 45-46: “In 2004, the criminologists Brandon Welsh and David Farrington analyzed thirty-two studies conducted in the United States, Canada, and Britain to determine whether CCTV deterred crime more effectively than simple streetlights. Their conclusion: streetlights and CCTV were equally effective in deterring property crime – and neither one was very good at deterring violent crime. They theorized that cameras and streetlights both ‘act as a catalyst to stimulate crime reduction through a change in perceptions, attitudes and behaviour of residents and potential offenders’.”

The authors of the Urban Institute study referred to by Ms. Angwin suggested that cameras are effective only when they are actively monitored by law enforcement agents. Ms. Angwin thus concludes, at p. 45, that, “…surveillance cameras work to influence human behavior only when people are convinced that a human being is on the other side of the camera watching them.”

Explosions in technology always race ahead of our capacity to catch up with them. We suffer from future shock before we even get there. But there are signs that regulation and oversight of surveillance cameras is emerging. On February 13, 2015, the Winnipeg Free Press published the guidelines released by Manitoba’s Ombudsman, Mel Holley, who said: “As the use of video surveillance becomes more common, public bodies and trustees must remember that the technology also captures unnecessary information about employees and citizens as they go about their daily lives. The use of video surveillance technology in public spaces and public buildings comes with responsibilities and obligations set out in our access and privacy laws. As a result, making the decision to use video surveillance must be carefully planned and implemented. Because the use of video and audio surveillance is very intrusive to individual privacy rights and raises a number of controversial issues, organizations need to assess the true need and value of video surveillance. The organization must balance the benefits of using surveillance technology with the potential cost to individual privacy.”

The video surveillance guidelines announced by Mr. Holley contain ten considerations intended for organizations subject to The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and The Personal Health Information Act. They are:

  • demonstrating the need for and value of video surveillance versus less privacy-intrusive options
  • collection of personal and personal health information
  • developing a surveillance system policy
  • design and implementation of a surveillance system
  • notifying the public a system is in operation
  • using and disclosing surveillance records
  • retention and destruction of surveillance records
  • security of surveillance records
  • access to surveillance records
  • auditing surveillance systems

So, just how bad is it anyway? Oh, it’s bad. But the guidelines announced by Mr. Holley are a step toward regulation and oversight – a bell for social responsibility. Now the politicians have to catch up.

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