Why B.C.'s privacy commissioner cares so much about Kelowna's surveillance cameras - InfoNews

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Why B.C.'s privacy commissioner cares so much about Kelowna's surveillance cameras

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February 15, 2018 - 8:00 PM

KELOWNA - How is it possible that the most public of spaces, a park or town square, could end up being one of the last bastions of personal privacy?

“They are one of the last spaces where we are untracked,” explains acting deputy privacy commissioner Brad Weldon.

The Office of Information and Privacy Commissioner last week announced it was looking at Kelowna as one of the B.C. municipalities it feels is pushing the boundaries of privacy with plans to begin live monitoring and recording of some of the 368 surveillance cameras installed around the city.

Of specific concern, Weldon says, are the 25 street cameras installed on some downtown streets, several of the city’s bigger parks and around the Queensway transit loop.

“There’s irony there for sure because you’re out in public, unlike when you’re online where you are being tracked through our choices and every search we do,” he adds. “One of the last places where we can be and not be tracked, monitored or quantified, are in these public spaces where we have every right to be.”

But even if you personally don’t mind the idea of public surveillance — if you’re not doing anything wrong, why worry? — the B.C. Freedom of Information and Protection Act expressly forbids it.

“Any public body, including local government, can only collect information that is necessary for a program or activity of that public body,” Weldon says. “Certainly, collecting video surveillance data in a public square or in a park would be in a situation where it is being collected without consent.”

Weldon says his office could possibly give their blessing to Kelowna's video surveillance program if it can be shown to be effective but that claims of reducing crime and improving public safety with CCTVs have proven to be false over and over again.

“That would require they demonstrate the video cameras are effective and doing the things they want them to do,” Weldon says. “If they can demonstrate that, which no other public body has been able to do under similar circumstances, then it would be lawful.”

Even without recording and storing the video feeds, Weldon says the city could be in violation with its plans to begin 24-hour monitoring of some of the cameras.

“Whether they are recording or not doesn’t matter and we would likely take the position that active monitoring is more harmful than just recording,” Weldon adds. “An employee can recognize someone on the video and start talking to other people about it."

And should Kelowna, or any other city, push foward with their surveillance programs, Weldon says the commission can initiate an investigation on its own or through a complaint by a private citizen about what they feel is the illegal collection of personal information.

“We haven't gone down that road yet but the commissioner has expressed his growing concern within the last couple of months,” Weldon says.

If an investigation by his office were to begin, Weldon says, it could result in a finding of fact leading to an order from the commissioner which has the same effect as a court order.

Weldon stresses that such an investigation has not been initiated but if one were and a finding of non-compliance made, the city would have little choice but to obey or face a contempt of court charge.

“We’ve never had to do that in the public sector and I don’t expect we will have to,” he says. “Generally, a finding by the commissioner that a public body is offside is sufficient to get them to change their practices.”

Weldon says he understands why municipal politicians would be tempted by the the promise of reduced crime and better public safety.

“It’s an easy way to seem like you’re doing something to solve a problem but not actually solve the problem and it creating this other problem where you are violating the privacy rights of individuals,” he says.

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