Vancouver residents saw a state-of-the-art street camera system arrive before the 2010 Olympics and then watched most of it disappear because of privacy concerns once the Olympics were over. But should the privacy of the individual always rank ahead of the security of the society as a whole?
In 2002 the Vancouver Police requested additional street cameras, particularly in the Downtown East Side (DTES). The B. C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) vigorously opposed this request (1, 2). It argued that there was a need for privacy in public spaces and cameras were not warranted. The request for more cameras in the DTES was denied.
However, in 2008 and 2009 the necessity of providing improved security during the Olympics led the Vancouver Integrated Security Unit (RCMP) to lease and install a state-of-the-art street camera surveillance system at a cost of more than $2.1 million (3). The system included some 900 to 1000 CCTV cameras and their related data transmission, recording and viewing equipment. During the same period 50 to 89 CCTV cameras were purchased by the City of Vancouver.
All of these new street cameras were fiercely opposed by the BCCLA and the Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN) (4). They argued that the cameras were a major intrusion on civil rights. In May 2008 David Loukadelis, BC’s privacy commissioner, told the CBC that “once the games were over these camera might remain and become an unreasonable infringement on everyday privacy rights.” He said that he “would be reluctant (if) the surveillance equipment gets left behind and starts getting used for ordinary law enforcement purposes” (5).
As a result of the fears expressed by the opponents of the cameras, the City of Vancouver promised that all of the leased cameras would be removed after the Olympics and this was apparently done.
Before the Olympics there seemed to be just one main concern about street cameras, the concern about surveillance. Someone could be watching our everyday movements. People thought back to the 1967/2009 UK television series, “The Prisoner”, where Patrick McGoogan was continually trying to hide from an all-seeing, ever-present surveillance system (6).
Yet 46 years after the first episode of “The Prisoner” most of us have become accustomed to camera surveillance as we moved through the lobbies of offices, browsed in stores or entered large condos or apartment buildings. There have been few objections to the presence of such cameras but there would be a major outcry from store owners and apartment dwellers if these cameras were taken away. This is because people would be losing a significant measure of the personal security that the cameras provide.
After the Vancouver Hockey Riot of 2011 and the recent Boston Marathon bombings (not to mention earlier events in the UK in London) people began to recognize that the principal use of the cameras might not be surveillance but their use after an event to help identify criminals and to provide evidence to aid police actions and the courts.
With regard to this second use, New York Mayor Bloomburg told CNN on April 25, 2013 (7) that “The role surveillance cameras played identifying the suspects was absolutely essential to saving lives, both in Boston, and now we know here in New York City, as well. We’ve made major investments in camera technology, notwithstanding the objections of some special interests, and the attacks in Boston demonstrate just how valuable those cameras can be.”
It seems apparent that everyone in society gains freedom and security when criminals can be rapidly caught and brought to justice and prevented from committing additional acts.
There is one obvious change required to ensure the effectiveness of a street camera system. Individuals cannot be in public places with their faces covered by masks or hoods, particularly during major public events. (Permission could be given to avoid this rule to cover situations like a clown in a parade or a masked person on a float.) Such a rule change would mean masked people could no longer demonstrate around Pidgin restaurant in Gastown or at any other public/street event.
Have we arrived at a time when the need for security trumps privacy? If so, is there a middle way between the state-of-the-art surveillance system used during the Olympics and the system currently in place? After the 2011 Vancouver Hockey Riot the Vancouver police had to ask the public for cell phone pictures to help identify rioters. With a more extensive high definition camera system like that available to the Boston authorities, those identifications would have been easier and therefore faster. The real threat is that of a terrorist action. Must we wait until such an event actually happens before we take preventative action?
It is time to consider getting an expanded high-definition CCTV camera system back on the main streets and in public areas of Vancouver including those in the DTES. If necessary, there could be an agreement on the use of the system for crime-in-progress surveillance and on access to the data. But the camera data must be available to the police before and during major public gatherings and after a crime has been committed.
Finally, it is time to enact and enforce regulations that forbid the use of masks and disguises during public gatherings and demonstrations. We can’t afford to have “privacy in public spaces”. Isn’t this an oxymoron?
We need to encourage the peaceful gatherings that we had during the Olympics and Expo 86 but discourage the wanton violence of the 2011 Riot. If people know the cameras are in place, their behavior will change. Vandalism is only fun when you can get away with it.