Governments throughout Canada are increasingly turning to the use of video surveillance in the belief that it prevents crime. While video surveillance of public places such as streets or parks is still relatively rare (fourteen Canadian cities are said to currently use video surveillance) the use of video cameras in indoor public spaces, such as airports, ports and terminals and government buildings is far more prevalent.

And the appetite of city governments and police services for surveillance cameras is growing. The Olympics, held in Vancouver in 2010, is expected to result in a massive increase in the use of surveillance cameras around the Vancouver region. But the effectiveness of video surveillance in reducing crime is extremely doubtful, according to a government analysis done in the United Kingdom–where there are 4.2 million surveillance cameras. The study concluded, based on a review of 22 different studies, that video surveillance reduced crime only to a small degree and was most effective at reducing vehicle crime in parking lots. Video surveillance was found to have little or no effect on crime in public transport and city centre settings.

Other forms of surveillance include municipal bylaws that require businesses to file reports to police about their customers (pawnbrokers and others have been subject to such laws); laws requiring internet service providers to disclose customer name and other information (“lawful access”); government policies and programs that watch people as they cross borders or engage in other lawful activities.

The key problem with these types of laws and policies is that they go around the long-standing requirement to use the courts to get a warrant for the collection of personal information by police and other agencies of government.  Judges have a duty to safeguard our rights by considering whether the police have reasonable grounds to invade an individual’s privacy, based on the particular evidence in the particular case. Judges perform a very important gatekeeping function. But by putting entire communities under surveillance and re-naming it a security measure, governments avoid having to go to a judge in many cases, and they ignore their constitutional responsibilities to minimally intrude on citizens’ rights. When that happens, everyone’s privacy is threatened.