Nearly 500 surveillance cameras in downtown Vancouver do not post information about who owns them, making it impossible for people to find out who is watching them and why.
The cameras, 200 of which are in alleyways, skirt privacy laws and breach official guidelines for overt video surveillance by private companies. These guidelines require notification to be provided about who owns the cameras and for what purpose.
The cameras were uncovered by a mapping project, completed in September by the Vancouver Public Space Network and Simon Fraser University students.
The team does not know how long these unidentified cameras have monitored city streets. It also has no information on who might own these cameras and for what purpose.
The project found more than 2,000 cameras downtown and in the Downtown Eastside that capture public spaces. These include sidewalks and parks, but not areas that are privately owned such as stores or office buildings.
Most cameras downtown are privately owned, operated and monitored, with businesses using them for security in case of an incident.
The SkyTrain and Translink cameras form a network. The footage is monitored in a central location in New Westminster. This service operates with funds from taxation revenues.
During the Winter Games in February 2010, an additional 900 security cameras will be put in Olympics venues, and between 50-70 will be installed in public areas, according to the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit.
The footage from these cameras will stream directly to the Emergency Operations Centre on East Pender Street in Vancouver.
Constable Anne Longley of the Vancouver Police Department said that the police do not own or operate any of the claimed, or unclaimed, cameras. Neither does the city.
Police look at video footage from private cameras when they need information about a crime. “It is a matter of practice to look for evidence everywhere, and that includes cameras,” said Longley.
Any organization needs consent before it collects personal information from people, including images. Organizations must display clear notices that inform the public of video surveillance and provide the owner’s contact information, according to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Organizations must also provide all records of personal information to an individual upon request, according to B.C.’s Personal Information Protection Act.
Josh Paterson of the Vancouver Public Space Network said the key difference between public and private cameras is that private cameras are not networked. The footage from the cameras downtown is not available at a central location.
Paterson said there should be more public consultation about the cameras. He hopes the mapping project will raise awareness about the amount of surveillance that already exists in public areas in Vancouver.
Problems for protesters
Richard Smith, a communication professor at Simon Fraser University who specializes in surveillance, said people make slight changes in their actions when they think they are being watched.
He described the small changes in behavior due to video cameras as “tiny cuts to democracy.”
“What if everyone were a tiny bit less active and less engaged in our democracy?” asked Smith.
Michael Vonn of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said she was concerned about the implications of surveillance during the Winter Olympics.
Free speech zones have been created as protest areas around heavily watched Olympic venues.
“The cameras erode public anonymity and reduce the expressive topography available for protest,” said Vonn.
Performing for the cameras
One of the Simon Fraser University students who helped complete the surveillance inventory was Saghar Tofigh. She found dozens of surveillance cameras at Vancouver’s brand new waterfront convention centre, which was the scene of rallies this summer to show solidarity with the Iranian democratic movement.
It was an ironic place for her to protest. “Deep down, without even wanting to, the first thing that came to my mind was those cameras,” said Tofigh, who grew up under Iran’s authoritarian government.
But she acknowledged that there was a role for surveillance cameras.
“The problem is the security and transparency of those cameras,” said Tofigh. She said the cameras would be fine if the public knows they exist, and for what purpose.
Setareh Shohadaei, a graduate student of political science, organized the Vancouver rallies for Iran this July. She said thousands of protesters attended the events over a period of more than a week.
She said many people would have been uncomfortable had they known about the cameras. Protesters did not want their images captured for fear of consequences if they chose to travel to Iran, she said.
Shohadaei said that because she is an active protester, she does not plan to return to Iran in the near future.
“As soon as there are eyes, everyone is performing a role,” she said.
Where are the cameras?
- The SeaBus and SkyTrain – These quasi-public spaces have heavy surveillance. There are three cameras at street level at the Waterfront Station on Cordova Street. A central operating station in New Westminster controls all images recorded by city transit.
- The Convention Centre – Video cameras heavily populate this area and capture images of people who pass by. Activists may use this site to protest during the Olympics.
- The street/store camera – Cameras often monitor high-end stores. Many grab images of the public because of outdoor placement. These cameras serve a dual purpose: they provide security for the store, and they record images for the police to use in event of a crime.
- The mall – Surveillance cameras help to manage commercial space. It is one of their key functions.
- The surveillance store – A spy store on West Pender Street sells the equipment needed to watch and to monitor people.
Source: The Surveillance Games Research Workshop walking tour led by Professor Richard Smith.