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2000-2001 Annual Report to Parliament

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Appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights

February 21, 2002
Ottawa, Ontario

George Radwanski
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

(Check Against Delivery)

I am very glad to have this opportunity to appear before you this morning to talk about my first Annual Report as Privacy Commissioner and to answer any questions you may have on it or the issues that it covers.

I particularly want to use my appearance here today to ask you to help me stop one of the most unacceptable invasions of personal privacy in Canada - the use of a video surveillance camera by the RCMP in Kelowna, B.C. to monitor the activities of law-abiding citizens.

As you know from my Annual Report, this surveillance camera was set up by the RCMP, acting as a municipal police force, to continuously monitor and record everyone on one of Kelowna's public streets.

This was a clear violation of the Privacy Act which prohibits the unauthorized collection of personal information, which is defined as information about "an identifiable individual that is recorded in any form."

Yet when he was confronted with this undeniable fact, RCMP Commissioner Zaccardelli took advantage of a loophole to just minimally comply with the law.

When the Privacy Act was drafted some 20 years ago, "recorded in any form" was meant to be as all-encompassing as possible. No one was thinking in those days about real-time video surveillance.

So by ordering that 24-hour-a-day monitoring through the camera continue -just without continuous recording - Commissioner Zaccardelli has satisfied the letter of the law, but not its spirit or intent.

That's because turning off the VCR doesn't solve the fundamental problem this camera creates.

It's not the taping of the images that destroys personal privacy. It's the round-the-clock monitoring of anyone who happens to walk on this particular street.

As Justice LaForest of the Supreme Court said in a 1990 decision:

"To permit unrestricted video surveillance by agents of the state would seriously diminish the degree of privacy we can reasonably expect to enjoy in a free society.We must always be alert to the fact that modern methods of electronic surveillance have the potential, if uncontrolled, to eradicate privacy."

I have repeatedly asked the RCMP commissioner to comply with my finding on this matter and meet the spirit and intent of Parliament's privacy legislation by turning off the camera in Kelowna. He refuses.

The RCMP has a proud tradition of excellence that has earned it the trust and respect of Canadians.

Very frankly, I consider it a national disgrace that Canada's national police force has taken refuge in a legal technicality to continue violating one of the fundamental human rights - the right of privacy - enjoyed by all Canadians.

It is also unacceptable that the RCMP feels free to ignore the strongest possible recommendation of an Officer of Parliament.

This whole ombudsman approach to protecting the fundamental human right of privacy is based on the premise that our federal government institutions will want to respect the moral authority of the independent officer who is your agent, the agent of Parliament.

If an important institution like the RCMP is free to simply shrug off a recommendation, the whole approach is damaged - and with it the fabric of our rights.

Until now, this has been well understood.

Most recently, when I expressed concern about mail opening by Canada Customs agents even though it was technically legal, the Minister of National Revenue caused the problem to be addressed.

When my predecessor drew attention to his concerns about HRDC's Longitudinal Labour Force File, which again was technically legal, this data base was promptly dismantled. There are many such examples.

What I'm talking about today isn't just one little camera. Next month there are supposed to be another five RCMP cameras in Kelowna. And this is starting to turn into a national fad.

If the RCMP can defy the privacy concerns of the federal privacy commissioner, the risk is that every police force and municipality in the country will see it as a green light to ignore the privacy issues and install cameras at will.

If that happens, privacy in Canada will be dealt a crippling, possibly irreparable blow.

The RCMP claims the camera is helping to reduce crime in Kelowna, yet it cannot produce any evidence of this.

The fact is that there is no compelling evidence anywhere that street video surveillance actually reduces crime. London, England has more street video surveillance cameras than any other city, and last year it had more of the cameras than any previous year - and last year in London street crime went up 40 per cent.

As an ombudsman, my chief tools are persuasion and publicity.

I will continue to use both of them to defend the privacy and freedoms that define us as a nation.

But I need your help, particularly in shutting down the Kelowna camera which has become a crucial test case. I'm formally asking for that help today.

I ask those of you on the government side of the House to raise this issue with your caucus colleagues, including the Solicitor General who is responsible for the RCMP.

And I ask those of you in opposition to do whatever is appropriate in Parliament to encourage Commissioner Zaccardelli to respect the spirit, not just the letter, of Canada's privacy laws.

And now I would welcome any questions that you may have. Thank you.

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