The cost of video cameras on our streets is too high

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Imagine yourself walking down Hastings Street on a sunny afternoon, doing a bit of shopping. You pull out your address book to confirm the address of the store you are looking for.

A video camera zooms in and people in a basement room read off the names and addresses on the page from their monitor. And then the image will be recorded—perhaps only for a day until it is recorded over—but maybe for a year if the camera zooms back a bit and picks up someone selling drugs.

Actually, you will not have to imagine this if the Vancouver city council approves the proposal that has been put forward by the police to install up to 25 video cameras, covering 59 city blocks of the Downtown Eastside. This will be the reality in that part of town.

But if you are engaging in a legitimate activity, what do you have to fear from others knowing about it? Isn’t it only drug dealers and prostitutes or johns who worry being observed at what they do?

Well, if you’re headed to your psychiatrist, proctologist, or gynecologist, you shouldn’t be embarrassed by the fact, but do you want to broadcast it?

And the sidewalk is a public place, isn’t it? We don’t have any right to privacy in a public place, do we? Those of us at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association agree that citizens have a lot less right to privacy on the street than they do in their own homes, but “a lot less” is not the same as “none”.

Think of stalking, for example. We have the right to be protected from that in a public place, even (perhaps especially) when it’s done by a camera from someone watching you without your being able to see them doing it.

Now imagine that image of you being matched against the digitized picture on your driver’s licence. And that information being pooled with your cell phone conversation from 15 minutes ago, which can be readily intercepted by a low budget scanner. It is not much of a trick to track where the call came form. Now imagine that while you were making the call from your car as you crossed the bridge form the North Shore. At the same time your licence plate was photographed by the police to help them manage traffic, and is now available in digital form.

What requires real imagination is not these individual records being gathered about your day—for they already are—but their assemblage by some interested authority. That’s one possible future the BCCLA is very concerned about.

The police maintain that they have no interest in the matching of these items, and we have no reason to doubt their present intentions. But if we show that we are not concerned about our privacy, who could blame them for concluding that we will not mind moving on to the next step?

The police are not intending to bring about a “surveillance society”, to borrow a phrase from B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, David Flaherty. They are concerned about something we all care about: safety on our public streets and the protection of our property.

So is the BCCLA. The BCCLA’s disagreement with the police proposal is about two related things. First, we think that the police have grossly underestimated the privacy costs involved in this proposed system. We won’t dwell on the monetary costs here, though these are some $400,000 in start-up costs alone. Second, the BCCLA doubts that the system will really provide the added security to people and property that would justify the obvious costs to our privacy. The effectiveness problem centres on “displacement” and it is believed by many criminologists and some police who have studied video surveillance systems in other places such as Britain and the U.S. to be the major effect of video surveillance.

Certainly crime is reduced right under the cameras, but does it disappear or simply move down the street to a street without a camera? As British police officer Wesley Sharp put it, “Certainly the crime goes somewhere. I don’t believe that just because you’ve got cameras in a city centre that everyone says ‘Oh well, we’re going to give up crime and get a job.'”

So what have we gained in exchange for our loss of privacy if a citizen gets mugged on Commercial Drive instead of on Pender Street?

Displacement is hard to demonstrate statistically, because crime is falling, not only in Vancouver but throughout the developed countries. This is in part due to good things the police are doing, such as community policing, but also because there is a decline im the numbers of people statistically most likely to commit crimes, males between the ages of 15 and 30. So, in cities with video surveillance, crime drops in the relatively small area where the cameras are and increases in other areas without cameras.


The evidence for the effectiveness of video surveillance for reproducing, as opposed to displacing crime, is also not demonstrated in the statistics either. But surely the burden of proof falls on those who offer us security as a consequence of video surveillance, give that there is no question that we will purchase it at the cost of our privacy.

The police have made it quite clear in their proposals that video cameras by themselves are not going to turn crime around in this city. They say the cameras must be supplemented by rapid deployment of officers to the incidents identified in the video.

Now this is to admit what is really needed: more police walking the sidewalk, some of whom we could afford if we didn’t invest in video surveillance.

As Anatole France put it, “The casting of spells and anthrax have resulted in the death of many cattle.” If we can with more police on the beat plus video surveillance, the BCCLA thinks that the first option wins hands down. The second is just too costly in terms of our privacy.

Dale Beyerstein serves on the Board of Directors of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association