The Use of Video Surveillance Cameras in Public Places in Canada

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École nationale d'administration publique (ENAP)




This report is a study of the perceptions, issues, privacy impacts and best practices on the use of video surveillance in Canada. The study is based on a review of 22 video surveillance projects of publicly accessible sites (most targeting downtown streets and commercial areas), seven provincial privacy guideline publications, input from four Québec-based focus groups, media analyses and an overview of the literature.

The authors feel that authorities must consider five principal issues as the use of video surveillance becomes more widespread in Canada.

Firstly, based on their analysis of the Canadian context, the authors conclude that, due to a growing sense of insecurity within the population, the main pressure for increased video surveillance comes from various community groups (business owners, citizens, etc.) rather than from government and public institutions. Although not necessarily the best approach, video surveillance is usually the first solution that comes to mind. The result is often a displacement of the problem (for example drug dealing, prostitution) and a growing threat to the privacy of individuals.

Secondly, the importance given to privacy issues varies according to current events. Terrorist acts are not alone in generating the kind of fear that triggers demand for increased video surveillance. Any criminal or delinquent act can capture the public imagination depending on the victims and circumstances. The danger lies in overreacting to a situation that is limited in scope since the decisions are often hard to reverse.

Thirdly, digital camera technology opens the possibility of generalized biometric identification in public spaces. The authors feel that this further threat to privacy may require closer regulation and monitoring of video surveillance systems by responsible authorities.

Fourthly, although video surveillance is usually seen as a tool for monitoring the criminal element and discouraging crimes against persons or property, certain groups who feel at risk of discrimination by authorities (due to ethnicity, age, gender, etc.) consider it a tool for ensuring transparency and fair treatment. Again the question comes down to balancing the quest for security against the need for privacy.

Finally, although community groups are often the ones requesting increased video surveillance, they are also the ones looking for increased oversight and regulation of these systems. This often puts them at odds with the system administrators who wish to maintain their autonomy. This tension points to the need for clearer governance rules and increased dialogue among stakeholders.

This document is available in the following language(s):

French only

OPC Funded Project

This project received funding support through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Contributions Program. The opinions expressed in the summary and report(s) are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Summaries have been provided by the project authors. Please note that the projects appear in their language of origin.

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