Citizen objects to cable company broadcasting street activities on local channel and Web site

PIPEDA Case Summary #2003-131

[Section 2]

Complaint

An individual complained that a local cable company was improperly collecting personal information, by means of a video camera that it had installed outside of its office, and then broadcasting this information on its local television channel and Web site.

Summary of Investigation

The cable company installed the camera two years ago to broadcast local events being held along the street for the benefit of the community's large senior and "shut-in" population. The camera is fixed and has no roaming or zooming capabilities. The company does not record the activities on the street. There are no signs posted near the camera informing individuals that their activities are being broadcast on television or the Internet.

With respect to the television channel, to which only cable subscribers have access, the company broadcasts a live-feed of the activities on the street and plays a radio station for the audio portion. Because of the camera's position, it is not possible to identify an individual or discern any identifying number, such as a licence plate number.

The company's Internet site also broadcasts the street's activities. Like the television channel, it is not possible to identify individuals or licence plate numbers, either by zooming in on an image or by enlarging it. Furthermore, the site broadcasts intermittent pictures. Thus, the timing of the activities shown and that of the actual activity are not concurrent. In fact, because of the intermittent broadcast, not all activities are even shown.

The complainant noted that the RCMP likely had access to this channel. While officials of the local detachment confirmed that they were aware of the channel and Web site broadcasts, they indicated that they did not monitor either for criminal-related activities or for any other purpose. Moreover, they stated that since it was not possible to positively identify anyone, the RCMP could not use the information captured by the camera for any criminal prosecutions.

Commissioner's Findings

Issued March 6, 2003

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

Application: Section 2 defines personal information to be "...information about an identifiable individual...".

Since it was not possible to identify an individual or discern a licence plate number on either the television channel or the Web site, the Commissioner determined that the information captured by the camera did not qualify as personal information for the purposes of the Act.

He therefore concluded that the complaint was not well-founded.

Further Considerations

The Commissioner conveyed his concern that a perception could arise among citizens that they were being watched as a result of a lack of information about the purposes of the camera and the quality of the images it captures. He noted that, in such a situation, the adverse psychological effects of privacy invasion could occur even though no actual observation is taking place. He therefore recommended that the cable company post signs clearly indicating the purposes of the camera and that neither individuals nor licence plate numbers are identifiable.

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