When using video surveillance, security needs must respect privacy requirements

PIPEDA Report of Findings #2010-008

May 16, 2010


An individual complained to our Office about the privacy practices of the owner of the apartment building in which he lived. One aspect of his complaint related to the use of video surveillance.  He alleged that video cameras installed in the building were collecting excessive and unreasonable amounts of personal information.

Our Office counted 26 cameras in the building, providing 24-hour surveillance of all entrances, the lobby, the laundry room, the inside of the elevator, all interior hallways, and the garbage and bicycle storage areas outside the building.

The property manager cited a long history of break-ins and vandalism and that, in keeping with the management company's policy on video surveillance, the cameras were installed to protect both tenants and the premises. The property manager added that footage was deleted after 60 hours, and that no one looked at the recordings unless there had been an incident.

Inspecting the building, we noted that hallway cameras were often located in such a way that, when apartment doors were open, cameras could view inside. As well, one of the outdoor cameras was able to capture activity on a nearby public sidewalk.

In examining this complaint, our Office considered Principles 4.4 and 4.4.1 of the Act, which state that the collection of personal information shall be limited to that which is necessary for the purposes identified by the organization, and that organizations shall not collect personal information indiscriminately.

In addition, subsection 5(3) of the Act states that an organization may collect, use or disclose personal information only for purposes that a reasonable person would consider appropriate in the circumstances.

Given the history of break-ins, theft and vandalism—documented by both the tenants' organization and the building manager—we found video surveillance an appropriate response. Indeed, the incidence of the problems in areas covered by surveillance declined markedly since the cameras were installed.

However, tenants' apartment doors were under 24-hour surveillance, and some cameras could view inside some units. Regardless of whether the video was being monitored in real time or not, the fact that tenants going about their daily activities were being recorded at all amounted to an invasion of privacy. It is our view that personal information was being collected indiscriminately, and beyond the purpose of protecting tenants and premises.

As a result of this investigation, and in response to our recommendations, the property manager agreed to move the hallway cameras into the building stairwells, re-position all outside cameras so they did not record public spaces, and ensure that video is viewed only after a security-related issue has been reported.

Accordingly, this complaint was determined to be well-founded and resolved.

Lessons Learned

  • Video surveillance can play an important role in protecting public safety, but we must respect its ability to collect vast amounts of personal information—much of which may have nothing to do with assuring safety or security.
  • Video surveillance is inherently intrusive. For this reason, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner has developed detailed guidance on the use of both overt video surveillance and covert video surveillance by private sector organizations.

Report of Findings

Complaint under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (“PIPEDA” or the “Act”)

  1. The complainant alleges that the collection of his personal information via video surveillance at his apartment building (the “Respondent”), is excessive and unreasonable.

Summary of Investigation

  1. The complainant is a tenant in the Respondent building, where, at the time of the complaint, there were 26 video surveillance cameras recording activity in and around the building 24 hours a day. The building has a property manager and two live-in superintendents. It is several stories high, with over 70 apartments and four external access doors: one door each at the front and at the side, as well as a side garage door for people and a large garage door for vehicles.
  2. The 26 video cameras were installed in approximately three phases:
    • June 2005 – five cameras installed at both garage doors; two installed in the lobby (one directed at the front door; the other at the side entrance).
    • April 2007 – six cameras installed:  inside the elevator; the laundry room; the first floor hallway, directed at the storage lockers; the garbage area outside; two more added in the lobby.
    • August 2008 – 15 cameras installed:  inside the laundry room; outside the front of the building, directed toward the bicycle storage area; at the end of each hallway on all floors (except for the eighth floor, which has only one).
  3. The Respondent’s video surveillance policy states that the building utilizes video surveillance technology to protect its tenants and the premises. Under the heading “Location of surveillance”, the policy states that the Respondent utilizes video surveillance on all exterior and interior entrances and exits, and in common areas of the building:

    This allows for coverage in areas that an intruder may make access into and within the building.  This includes:

    • Garage entrances
    • Front and side building entrances
    • Garbage and recycling area
    • Front of building parking area
    • Parking garage
    • Lobby entrance, laundry and mail room
    • Hallways
    • All interior emergency exits
    • Inside elevators and elevator landings on each floor
  4. We noted that the building’s video surveillance policy also states that the surveillance information, recorded on three hard drives located in the superintendents’ apartment, is to be recycled and deleted automatically every 60 hours.
  5. During our investigation, the issue was also raised relative to whether there is real-time monitoring of the video surveillance information being captured by the cameras.  According to the property manager (who is also the respondent), “…the video is not reviewed unless a situation comes to our attention that requires the playback of the video.”  Three monitors (each with split screen capabilities) are housed inside a lockable cabinet located in the living room of the superintendents’ apartment.  Both the superintendents have access to the monitors, which are purportedly turned off. The superintendents themselves stated to this Office that they do not monitor information captured by the cameras. 
  6. However, in his representations, the complainant described a past incident to this Office, when his wife and nieces were waiting in the building lobby and the two younger nieces began to touch a decorative water feature. According to the complainant, one of the superintendents then spoke through one of the lobby cameras, instructing the girls not to touch the water feature.
  7. This Office conducted a site visit during our investigation, noting the locations of the cameras inside and outside the building, examining the monitoring and recording equipment, and interviewing the two superintendents and the complainant.  It was noted that, on most floors, the cameras located at each end of the hallway are directed down the length of it in such a way that some of them are able to get a glimpse into some apartments when the apartment door is open. It was also noted that the viewing angle of the camera located outside the front of the building not only captures the bicycle storage area but also the city sidewalk and any passersby.
  8. According to the property manager, who arrived in February 2005, a long history of break-ins and vandalism had jeopardized the safety and security of tenants, and the strategic placing of the cameras during the installation phases from 2005-2008 was in response to incidents of vandalism and break-ins occurring at those specific loci. He further asserts that, as of February 2010, the only vandalism that is still occurring is now limited to areas where there currently is no video surveillance (e.g., in the stairwells and on vehicles parked in the garage).
  9. The superintendents and the property manager expressed the opinion that some of the vandalism was perpetrated by tenants or associates of tenants who had entry access to the building. They cited examples of vandalism that had occurred inside the lobby (which resulted in the addition of two more cameras there in 2007), damage done to walls and light bulbs in the hallways on five separate floors, as well as in the tenant storage locker area. The hallway vandalism was followed by two cameras being installed in the hallways of each floor (except the eighth floor) in 2008.  
  10. We examined a copy of a notice written by the Respondent’s Tenants’ Association, which describes many varied types of security incidents that purportedly occurred (i.e., break-ins, vandalism, bike and car thefts) between 2005 and the spring of 2007. 
  11. When asked whether any other means to ensure security had been contemplated (other than video surveillance), the Respondent replied that “…implementing different security measures have been a priority for the Respondent since we started managing the building in 2005.” He expanded that lighting had been improved throughout the building, a mandatory change of door locks now occurs when a tenant vacates a unit, problematic outdoor areas of the building with fencing had been blocked off, and tenants have been educated about not letting strangers into the building. As well, although the Respondent’s Tenants’ Association was purportedly invited to work with building management to implement a community watch program, the manager claims the Association did not respond to the invitation.

Application

  1. In making our determinations, we applied Principle 4.4, which states the collection of personal information shall be limited to that which is necessary for the purposes identified by the organization.  Information shall be collected by fair or lawful means.
  2. We also applied Principle 4.4.1, which stipulates that organizations shall not collect personal information indiscriminately.  Both the amount and the type of information collected shall be limited to that which is necessary to fulfil the purposes identified.  Organizations shall specify the type of information collected as part of their information-handling policies and practices, in accordance with the Openness principle (Clause 4.8). 
  3. Subsection 5(3) is relevant and states that an organization may collect, use or disclose personal information only for purposes that a reasonable person would consider are appropriate in the circumstances.

Findings

  1. On March 30, 2010, I issued a report of investigation, in which I noted that the Respondents’ actions were not in compliance with various provisions of the Act and I made several recommendations to the Respondent, with the view of helping the organization meet its obligations. The Respondent responded to the recommendations.
  2. What follows is the original text from the report of investigation:

Analysis

  1. At issue is whether the Respondents’ on-site collection of personal information via video surveillance is excessive and unreasonable. 
  2. Principle 4.4 states the collection of personal information shall be limited to that which is necessary for the purposes identified by the organization.  Information shall be collected by fair or lawful means.  Principle 4.4.1 requires that organizations not collect personal information indiscriminately.  Both the amount and the type of information collected shall be limited to that which is necessary to fulfill the purposes identified.  Subsection 5(3) states that an organization may collect, use or disclose personal information only for purposes that a reasonable person would consider are appropriate in the circumstances.
  3. This Office has developed a four-point test to determine whether the standard set out in subsection 5(3) has been met in specific circumstances. 
  4. The first point of the test measures whether the measure used is necessary to meet a demonstrable need.  Given the incidents of break-ins, theft and vandalism experienced by the owner and tenants of the Respondent (which have been documented by both the tenants’ organization and the building manager), I am satisfied that the Respondent has identified a valid purpose―to protect tenants and premises―for installing video cameras. 
  5. The second point assesses whether the video surveillance system is effective in meeting the security need. In this regard, the quantitative and qualitative data we obtained during our investigation have convinced me that the signage and the presence of the cameras in and around the building have in fact been an effective deterrent against various forms of crime and misconduct. Specifically, we noted that the number of incidents has markedly declined in areas where the video images are being captured.
  6. The third point of the test evaluates whether the loss of privacy is proportional to the benefits gained. In my view, there is a definite loss of tenant privacy due to the positioning of some of the cameras.  A better balance should be struck between the respecting of tenants’ privacy rights on one hand, and the amount and type of information currently captured by the cameras on the other. 
  7. For example, it is unreasonably invasive for the apartment door of tenants to be under constant video surveillance, means by which their daily comings and goings can be easily monitored. And it is equally intrusive for images of the inside of their apartments to be caught as part of 24-hour video surveillance of the hallways. Regardless of whether the video recording is regularly monitored in real time (an assertion the building management has denied) or instead reviewed only when an incident occurs, the fact that tenants are being video recorded at all while carrying out their daily activities amounts to an invasion of privacy. 
  8. Moreover, by positioning cameras so they are aimed not only at the exit doors and elevator landings but also the entire length of a hallway, capturing tenants as they routinely enter and leave their apartments, it is my view that personal information is being collected indiscriminately―beyond the purpose of protecting tenants and premises―thereby violating Principles 4.4 and 4.4.1 of the Act. While the Respondent has provided some documentary evidence of acts of vandalism whereby light bulbs and walls were damaged in the hallways, as well as a break-in to the storage locker area and to vehicles, it has not provided any documented evidence of break-ins to the apartments themselves.
  9. The fourth point asks whether there is a less privacy-invasive method of achieving the same end. The Respondent has stated its commitment to implementing different types of security measures in the building since 2005. However, one cannot help but note a marked increase in video surveillance coverage of the building, especially since 2007, and the tendency of the Respondent to favour further video surveillance coverage as the solution of choice to deal with vandalism that building management believes is mainly perpetrated by specific tenants. 
  10. While I acknowledge that the property management has a duty to protect the building and it is frustrated by the actions of a few individuals whose sole goal appears to be the aggravation of building management (by throwing eggs at a wall inside the lobby or overturning trash cans), these reasons alone and the nature of the pranks do not justify the marked proliferation of the use of video cameras in and around the Respondent.  While potentially curbing the actions of the wrongdoers, the vast extent of the video surveillance coverage now adversely impacts, from a privacy perspective, the law-abiding tenants in the building. It also underscores, in my view, the need for re-considering less privacy-invasive methods to achieve the same end. Until this occurs, I cannot deem that the third and fourth points of the four-point test have been addressed and the standard set in subsection 5(3) has been met.

Recommendations from the report of investigation

  1. In my report of investigation, I made the following recommendations:

    That the Respondent review the location of each video camera to ensure that:

    • cameras are not aimed at areas where people have a heightened expectation of privacy such as inside their apartments and their front doors and landings.
    • cameras do not capture images of individuals who are not being targeted such as pedestrians walking by the building.
    • cameras capture images that are solely in keeping with the stated purpose of ensuring the security of the building and its residents.  They should also only capture the minimum amount of information in order for it to be effective for the stated purpose.
  2. I also recommended that video images should only be reviewed or monitored in conjunction with security purposes, and only after an incident occurs. I suggested that the cabinet housing the monitoring and recording equipment be kept locked until such a time that a review of the videotape is required.

The Respondents’ responses to recommendations

  1. The Respondent responded to our recommendations and agreed to do the following before the end of May 2010:
    • Remove and relocate to the stairwells all cameras located inside the hallways.
    • Reposition all outside cameras so that only images within the property boundaries are viewable.
    • Arrange so that images are only captured for the purposes of ensuring the security of the building and the Respondent’s tenants.  Review of any video footage will occur only after an issue of security has been brought to management’s attention.
  2. I am therefore satisfied with the response to our recommendations and I agree to the implementation of them by the Respondent within the stated time period.

Conclusion

  1. Accordingly, I conclude that the matter is well-founded and resolved.

 

Report a problem or mistake on this page
Please select all that apply (required): Error 1: This field is required.

Note

Date modified: