Federal Privacy Commissioner says "no" to Street Surveillance Cameras

Elaine Keenan Bengts, Privacy Commissioner of the Northwest Territories, made public the following on June 20, 2001.

Yellowknife - Mr. George Radwanski, the federal Privacy Commissioner, in his first decision under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), has told a Yellowknife security company that the installation of street surveillance cameras is unlawful.

In a letter of decision dated June 15th, 2001, the Privacy Commissioner reviewed a complaint about the placement of surveillance cameras at a downtown intersection in Yellowknife by Centurion Security Services. In his decision, Radwanksi held that both live video pictures and recorded video pictures of individuals qualify as "personal information" under the Act, and as such, cannot be collected or used in the context of a commercial activity without the informed consent of the information being taped.

Ms. Elaine Keenan Bengts, Information and Privacy Commissioner for the Northwest Territories who filed the complaint noted "I am pleased with the Commissioner's decision. Public safety is important, but it must be balanced with our fundamental right to personal privacy."

Radwanski did acknowledge in his decision that there may be instances where it is appropriate for public places to be monitored for public safety reasons, but that such surveillance must be limited to instances where there is a demonstrated need. "People have a right to go about their business without feeling that their actions are being systematically observed and monitored. That is the very essence of the fundamental human right to privacy, which is a crucial element of our freedom," said Radwanski.

PIPEDA came into force on January 1st, 2001 and applies to all commercial activities.

Radwanski and his counterparts from across the country will be in Yellowknife this weekend to attend the annual Information and Privacy Commissioner's Summit, being hosted by the Northwest Territories Information and Privacy Commissioner, Keenan Bengts.

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For more information: Elaine Keenan Bengts
Information and Privacy Commissioner for the Northwest Territories
Phone: (867) 669-0976
Toll Free: 1-888-521-7088
Cell: (867) 873-1179


June 15, 2001

Ms Elaine Keenan Bengts
Northwest Territories Information
and Privacy Commissioner
5018 - 47th Street
P.O. Box 262
Yellowknife NT X1A 2N2

Dear Commissioner Keenan Bengts:

This letter constitutes my report of findings with respect to the complaint you filed against Centurion Security Services Co. Ltd. (Centurion Security Services) under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (the Act). In your complaint received in my Office on May 25, 2001, you alleged that Centurion Security Services had installed surveillance cameras to track the movements and voices of people on Yellowknife's main street without their consent. You believe this to be a violation of the Act.

I have determined, first of all, that the subject matter of your complaint does fall within my jurisdiction under the Act. Section 30 excludes certain organizations and personal health information from the ambit of the Act until 2002 or 2004, as the case may be. But since by operation of constitutional law any business venture in the Northwest Territories is a Federal Work, Undertaking or Business, section 30 operates to apply to Centurion Security Services as of January 1, 2001. On this basis, therefore, I was required under section 12 of the Act to accept and investigate your complaint.

Before providing you with my findings, let me first outline the facts that were obtained during the course of our investigation. Centurion Security Services was originally a locksmith store. Eventually, the business expanded and was taken over by the proprietor's son, Mr. David Beckwith. The company has grown to some 30 employees and has branched out into home security alarms and monitoring. It has purchased some surveillance cameras to market as "nanny-cams", and intends in the future to supply guard dogs to businesses. At present, it has contracts with a local hospital, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, some apartment buildings, and a drug store on Yellowknife's main street. It is trying to start a private investigation service and it intends to bid on contracts with federal departments. Centurion Security Services has a business licence as required by the City of Yellowknife.

In the first week of May of this year, Centurion Security Services mounted four video cameras on the roof of Sutherland Drug Store at the corner of Franklin Avenue and 50th Street in Yellowknife. The drug store is a client, and the company's office is above the store. Live feed from the four cameras was monitored by Centurion staff using two video display terminals. The live feed was not video or audio taped. Centurion Security Services staff indicated that while video images were monitored, they did not monitor or capture audio feed. The video feed was monitored by Centurion's staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On several occasions, staff noted incidents and contacted local police to investigate.

Centurion believes that it is best positioned to provide a security monitoring service to the City of Yellowknife as an enhancement to that offered by the local RCMP. Centurion believes that video surveillance is of great benefit to the Yellowknife community as a whole and claims that it did its best to bring the City and the RCMP into the project.

The City of Yellowknife and the RCMP have worked together over the last few years to increase police presence in the downtown core in a program called "City Watch". In April 2001, Centurion wrote to the City's Mayor stating that it wanted to bring "City Watch to the next level" and offered its services as "Big Brother". The City declined.

Having concluded that this matter is within my authority to investigate, I must now determine, based on the facts outlined above, whether the information obtained through this surveillance activity is personal information as defined in section 2 of the Act.

Section 2 defines personal information to be ". information about an identifiable individual.". Clearly, any employee of Centurion Security Services who monitors the live feed from one of its video cameras, could in any subsequent process - a police line up, for example - identify an individual and describe his or her activities and behaviour. In my view, this is personal information that Parliament intended to protect within the framework of the Act. Had Parliament chosen not to include unrecorded information within the legislative framework, it would have defined personal information, as it did in the Privacy Act, to be information about an identifiable individual that is "recorded in any form".

Since Centurion Security Services' principal purpose for installing video surveillance equipment was to monitor the activities of people, I must conclude that the information at issue is personal information for the purpose of the Act.

Next, I was required to determine whether this personal information was collected, used or disclosed in the course of a commercial activity within the meaning of section 4 of the Act. Centurion Security Services is in the business of selling security services to clients. Its video surveillance activity, by its own admission, was a marketing demonstration intended to generate business. It follows, therefore, that Centurion Security Services' video surveillance activity is a commercial activity within the meaning of section 4 of the Act.

Was Centurion Security Services collecting, using or disclosing personal information without consent in contravention of Principle 4.3 of Schedule 1 of the Act? I conclude that it was. The fact that the feed was live and not taped is not relevant. The Act does not restrict personal information to information that is recorded. Evidence shows that individuals had not consented to the collection. As evidence that the information was collected, I note the fact that it was actually used by Centurion to notify the police of suspicious activity that was observed through the camera. In any event, a camera by its very nature is an instrument that is designed to record. Whether it contains film at any given moment, or whether it is functioning well or is defective, does not, in my view alter the nature of the activity being undertaken.

There may be instances where it is appropriate for public places to be monitored for public safety reasons. But this must be limited to instances where there is a demonstrable need. It must be done only by lawful public authorities and it must be done only in ways that incorporate all appropriate privacy safeguards set out by law. There is no place in our society for unauthorized surveillance of public places by private sector organizations for commercial reasons. People have a right to go about their business without feeling that their actions are being systematically observed and monitored. That is the very essence of the fundamental human right to privacy, which is a crucial element of our freedom. I must, therefore, conclude that Centurion Security Services does not comply with Principle 4.3 of Schedule 1 and section 5(1) of the Act.

Consequently, I have concluded that your complaint is well founded. Since the cameras had already been removed when my Office received your complaint, I do not believe that any further action in that regard is required at this time.

Nevertheless, the matter is not yet fully resolved. Centurion Security Services indicated to our investigators that it still intends to pursue its efforts to provide video surveillance services to the Yellowknife community. It plans to mount cameras in public areas with video and audio recording capability, but assured our investigators that the tapes will be properly secured with limited access. While this may be an appropriate security practice, it is not, as I have concluded, in keeping with lawful privacy practices. Therefore, I will inform Centurion Security Services that its intended public video surveillance for commercial purposes is unlawful and cannot be pursued.

This concludes the investigation of this complaint. If you have any questions or comments about the disposition of the complaint, I would invite you to contact Mr. Gerald Neary, Director General, Investigations and Inquiries, at 1-800-282-1376.

Yours sincerely,

George Radwanski
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

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