from an expert in the field:
from an expert in the field:
I WOULD LIKE to suggest the word “need” is
redundant since it is
inevitable that the use of
electronic surveillance, in
particular video cameras, throughout Canada
will only increase. Whether they are government systems on the border, law-enforcement
systems in downtown bar areas, retail systems
at shopping malls or your neighbour’s Costco-purchased residential-use cameras watching
the back alley, camera surveillance of public
places will continue to proliferate. Why is this?
According to the Surveillance Camera
Awareness Network (SCAN), based at Queen’s
University, approximately 47 per cent of
Canadians credit surveillance cameras with
reducing crime. This, coupled with the cost
savings associated with surveillance technologies, provides a good reason for the law-enforcement community in particular to
embrace this crime-fighting asset.
Academics and civil libertarians repeat-
edly warn against “big brother” and claim
there is no evidence that cameras deter crimi-
nals. Quite the contrary: The reality is the
average law-abiding citizen readily accepts this
intrusion. It is welcomed in most areas where
it is used, including public places where people
want an increased sense of security.
In addition, plenty of evidence indicates
that where public surveillance systems have
been introduced, crime rates have come down.
The presence of cameras may not deter the
most determined criminals, but they may cause
first-timers to reconsider. Cameras may not
stop a crime in progress, but they may result in
the offender’s apprehension, thus preventing
him or her from perpetrating more crime.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of
Canada and most provinces have guidelines to
ensure the public is informed that surveillance
is under way and to safeguard the indiscrimi-
nate use of surveillance footage. The odd fail-
ure is all too often blown out of proportion,
while the day-to-day use of surveillance is
accepted as normal. This is in line with societal
norms that see people routinely post their own
images online for the world to see.
The silent majority gets it. Electronic sur-
veillance of public areas is acceptable, in that
the positives of helping keep our society safe
and secure outweigh the questionable nega-
MOST PEOPLE don’t
think much about the
“electric eyes” watching
them in public spaces until
tragedy happens. When a
crime is caught on video and the images are
repeatedly broadcast across news media, there is
inevitably a swelling of support for more video
surveillance. But people seldom stop and think
about the fact that every time a camera captures
evidence of a crime, it also captures evidence that
a camera is clearly not a deterrent.
There’s no doubt that under certain conditions—good light, good cameras, good angles—
cameras can be effective in investigating crime.
But that is not the same as saying video surveillance cameras will help deter future incidents.
In fact, there is a growing body of research that
suggests video surveillance’s effectiveness in
deterring crime is questionable.
A 2004 study presented in Policing: An
International Journal of Police Strategies and
Management points out, “The effectiveness of
CCTV [closed-circuit television] in reducing
crime appears to depend upon how much poten-
tial offenders associate it with an increased risk of
getting caught and the emotional nature of the
crime.” Other research confirms that while cam-
eras can aid investigations (in some cases), they
are less effective at deterring disorder or violence
than at discouraging property crimes, and gener-
ally have little effect on overall crime levels.
People also need to consider what they give
up when video surveillance is installed in public
spaces. Once installed, cameras don’t sleep.
Who is collecting all this data? How is it being
stored? Processed? Is the information erased
after a certain period of time? Is it sold? Can it
be viewed by third parties over the Internet?
The cameras and their supporting infrastruc-
ture potentially become information portals into
the public’s daily lives. And as cameras increase in
capabilities, their analytic software can be linked
to databases and filtered through face-recogni-
tion software to count, identify, categorize and
sort the people who enter their sights.
As these systems mature, the range and
complexity of information they gather on the
people passing by will increase and present new
challenges for privacy. Imagine a Google-Street-
View-meets-video-analytics that is always on.
More people should question video surveillance
and call for clear regulation conducive to a just
and free democracy. C
Opinions expressed are those of
the individuals or organizations
represented and are presented
to foster discussion. Costco and
The Costco Connection take no
position on any Debate topic.
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John Slater is CEO of the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires,
Northern Alberta Division, headquartered in Edmonton, and is a 32-year
veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Joseph Ferenbok, PhD, of the University of Toronto, is the principal
investigator of the Who is Watching You? And Why? project funded by
the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.