In 2003, the Supreme Court of British Columbia rendered an important decision. The court ruled the privacy commissioner of Canada did not have the jurisdiction to sue the attorney general and Royal Canadian Mounted Police with respect to the latter’s decision to install video cameras in the city of Kelowna. I needed to reread the decision recently, and it still makes sense to me. Creatures of statute must stick to the powers granted to them by the legislature. If they were allowed to do more than what was expressly granted to them, they’d be breaking the rule of law — and essentially going rogue.
The problem with this old decision is that it put an end to a lawsuit that was very interesting from a privacy perspective. Then-Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski felt strongly that law enforcement ought not turn to video surveillance of public areas in their efforts to combat crime. Back in 2003, the use of video surveillance by law enforcement in public places was more novel than it is now. It was only a little time after 9/11, and other jurisdictions had reacted with some haste to curb crime. And, of course, there was already the prolific nature of closed-circuit TV cameras in London.
If the lawsuit had continued, the court would’ve grappled with the right to walk about public areas free from surveillance versus law enforcement’s use of an obviously good tool at combating crime. Instead, the commissioner’s office was forced to turn, as an ombudsperson does, to the issuance of guidance and recommendations. Provincial commissioners followed suit, and we now have tons of guidance for law enforcement on the appropriate use of video surveillance, including the use of body cameras worn by police officers.
I mention all this because my hometown is currently debating the installation of widespread CCTV cameras in the popular touristy area known as the ByWard Market. The Parliamentary District in Ottawa is already blanketed with cameras so this would essentially extend law enforcement’s view into downtown Ottawa. While there was recently some news about dangerous crime in the market, I have to admit that the notion of even more cameras has me thinking of “1984.” What about you? How do you feel when law enforcement turns to video surveillance to combat or ostensibly to prevent crime? Does the end justify the means? What do you think about more cameras? Are we so used to them and is it now so omnipresent it has become a non-issue? Do they actually work? With all the online tracking that exists, is this somehow more tame and acceptable? What do you think?
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