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Video surveillance activities in a public place

PIPEDA Case Summary #2001-1

[Principle 4.3, Schedule 1]


The Information and Privacy Commissioner of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut complained that a security company had improperly collected personal information without the consent of individuals by means of surveillance cameras installed on the main street of Yellowknife.

Summary of Investigation

The security company in question had mounted, on the roof of its office building, four video cameras aimed down into a main intersection of Yellowknife and had set up two monitors in its offices. For several days in early May 2001, company staff had monitored live feed from the street 24 hours a day. On several occasions, staff had noted incidents and contacted police. By the company's own admission, this surveillance activity had been a marketing demonstration intended to generate business. On negative publicity, the company removed the cameras less than a week after they had been installed.

Commissioner's Findings

Issued June 15, 2001

Jurisdiction: As of January 1, 2001, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act applies to federal works, undertakings, or businesses. The Commissioner had jurisdiction in this case because any company in the Northwest Territories is a federal work, undertaking, or business as defined in the Act.

Application: Principle 4.3, Schedule 1, states that the knowledge and consent of the individual are required for the collection, use, or disclosure of personal information, except where inappropriate.

Since the company's principal reason for installing video surveillance equipment was to monitor the activities of people, the Commissioner concluded that the information at issue was personal information for purposes of the Act. Since the company had admitted that its video surveillance activity was a marketing demonstration, the Commissioner concluded that the activity was a commercial activity within the meaning of the Act.

The fact that the video feed was live and not taped, was deemed not relevant, since the Act does not restrict personal information to recorded information. On the evidence, the Commissioner was satisfied that individuals had not consented to the collection. He found that the company had collected personal information without consent in contravention of Principle 4.3.

In presenting his findings, the Commissioner commented as follows: "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 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."

The Commissioner concluded therefore that the complaint was well-founded.

Further Considerations

No further action was required in respect of the complaint, since the company had already removed the cameras before the Commissioner issued his findings. However, the matter was not fully resolved, in that the security company indicated an intention to pursue its efforts to provide video surveillance services to the Yellowknife community. The Commissioner has advised the company that its intended public video surveillance for commercial purposes is unlawful and should not be pursued.

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

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