Closed Circuit Television (CCTV)
Vancouver public spaces are being impacted by an ever increasing number and variety of surveillance tools.
Surveillance cameras proposed for Vancouver schools
On May 12, 2010, the Vancouver Public Space Network sent a letter to Hon. Minister Margeret MacDiarmid, Minister of Education, outlining our concerns about the proposed changes to the School Act. The changes, contained within Bill 20, would facilitate the installation and deployment of CCTV (and related surveillance technology) within classrooms.
The VPSN feels that schools should be free of video surveillance, using this technology only as a tool of last resort and when its use is clearly justified. Research shows that surveillance cameras are ineffective both at decreasing unwanted behaviour and at catching criminals after the event. Furthermore, the technology is also expensive and present a costly and ineffective means of achieving the goals of safer schools.
In our letter, we noted that BC's Information and Privacy Commissioner has been recommending for a decade that school boards have policies governing the use of cameras, and the viewing and secure storage of the data they collect (see Keeping School Safe for Students, October 27, 2000). While some school boards have such policies, they are not required, and we find this very disconcerting. Even worse than allowing surveillance cameras to be used is allowing them without setting any rules to say under what circumstances they may be deployed, how they should be operated, how students' privacy rights will be safeguarded, who has access to the images, and in which places they are inappropriate. The province should either impose stringent standard rules to avoid the possibility of over-use and abuse of surveillance cameras, or require boards to adopt rules that meet or exceed a tough provincial standard.
:: Read the VPSN letter to Hon. Minister Margaret MacDiarmid concerning Bill 20 and the proposed changes to the School Act
:: Read the VPSN Media Release concerning Bill 20 and the proposed changes to the School Act
An estimated 900-1000 cameras have been installed around downtown Vancouver as part of the Olympic games, with the technology going 'live' in the weeks leading up to the February 12 Opening Ceremonies. Cameras are located near the Athlete's Village compound in South East False Creek, Livesite venues in Downtown and Yaletown, as well as games facilities at GM and BC place and elsewhere. Additional cameras - and signage indicating their use - have been visible along Granville Avenue and other public areas.
The VPSN is monitoring the use of CCTV technology during the Games time and is advocating for the removal of the new cameras following the conclusion of the 2010 Games.
VPSN Surveillance Map
In August 2009, 50 volunteers joined the the VPSN in mapping over 2000 security cameras in downtown Vancouver, including the central business district, Yaletown, Coal Harbour and the Downtown Eastside. The initiative, a collaboration that involved Simon Fraser University's Surveillance Research Project, saw volunteers walk every street and alley in the downtown, recording the details of each camera that was identified.
Most of the surveillance cameras in this area are privately owned (for example, by stores, businesses and condominiums), but capture public space outside of the buildings where they are located. As far as we know, this is the first time that an inventory of existing surveillance cameras has been created for downtown Vancouver. The purpose was to gain an understanding of the existing video surveillance in public space in the central part of the city, and to share that information with the public. We think that this will allow people and government in Vancouver to have a more informed discussion of the necessity and effectiveness of any proposals for increased surveillance in public spaces.
The preliminary map that we created, based on the data that we collected, is linked below. It indicates the places where surveillance cameras could be found prior to the installation of extra cameras for the Olympics. The dots represent locations in which we found one or more cameras. Each camera's geographic coordinates was automatically assigned and plotted on the map based on the street addresses where it was found. In all, the map represents the locations of 1500 of the 2000 cameras we found; the remaining 500 have been difficult to assign geographic coordinates to based on their addresses and must be done manually.
The Olympics have brought with them a huge increase in the use of surveillance technology on our streets, including a centrally monitored network of mobile surveillance cameras in use around Olympic venues and celebration sites, and elsewhere. There has been a great deal of debate over whether this intensified surveillance is necessary. We are particularly concerned about the surveillance legacy that the Olympics may leave behind, and will be monitoring the city government to make sure that this network is removed once the party is over. Addendum: As of February 2010, between 900 and 1000 new cameras have been added as part of the Olympic security preparations. These cameras are not identified on this map.
Public spaces are inherently places in which we can be observed by other people, and where we can observe others. However, the VPSN is concerned about the way that intense video surveillance, particularly networked, centrally monitored systems, might negatively affect the way that people and enjoy public spaces. In the United Kingdom, which has much more intensive public video surveillance than Canada, there are reports that security cameras have been used by security officers to harass people and to profile individuals based on race and socio-economic status. Studies from the UK have also shown that the blanket of cameras has been ineffective in achieving any significant reduction in crime in downtowns and on transit. The VPSN agrees with the position taken by the BC Privacy Commissioner that government-run video surveillance in public space should be used only as a last resort after all other reasonable measures have been exhausted (see the Public Surveillance System Privacy Guidelines).
Any decision to increase surveillance of Vancouver's public spaces requires full consultation with the community, with the best information available to help residents and their government make a decision. We hope that our surveillance mapping project and the data that it provides will raise awareness of surveillance in the city, and will inform this public policy conversation.
VPSN Surveillance Day - August 23, 2009
Surveillance mapping was one of the very first activities we undertook at the VPSN. Now, in the lead-up to the Olympics, we’re planning to undertake a very timely update to that work – a one-day mapping of CCTV in the Downtown Eastside and Downtown business district. We’re delighted to be collaborating with SFU Professor Richard Smith and his class.
We need a tonne of help with this project, and are looking for all the volunteers we can get. If you have a keen eye and would like to help in this epic city-exploration, please consider joining us. Invite friends! We'll be assigning streets and alleys to teams of two, with the hope of documenting every surveillance camera that looks into public space. The result will be a comprehensive map of how Vancouverites are being watched by CCTV. The maps and data will be used to inform the public, and to discuss surveillance issues with city hall and the police. We will also use the maps to create an art installation sometime in the fall...
Bring a pen and a clipboard if you have one, a digital camera too, (if you happen to have one at your disposal). We'll provide the recording sheets, and a quick tutorial and overview on how best to surveil the many unblinking cameras that monitor public space.
Meet at 10:00am at Victory Square (the public park at Cambie and Hastings). The mapping will probably take several hours. We're going ahead rain or shine.
:: For more details contact cctv [at] vancouverpublicspace.ca
:: Read the VPSN’s comments in the Georgia Straight on the use of new CCTV technology at the Celebration of Light
VPSN Draft Surveillance Backgrounder
The VPSN's Surveillance & Security Working Group has released a draft of their new CCTV backgrounder. The document provides an overview of key CCTV issues and reviews some of the "myths" surrounding the efficacy of surveillance camera technology.
:: Download Draft VPSN CCTV Backgrounder (PDF)
Gangland Hits & Granville Street Hoolighans
The recent killing of Ricardo Scarpino on a crowded downtown street has lead to renewed calls for the installation of surveillance cameras in Vancouver. Read our January 20, 2008 editorial on the subject here.
Just over a year ago, it was Granville Street that was 'under the lens' of police scrutiny.
At the May 17, 2006 meeting of the Vancouver Police Board, Former Chief Jamie Graham was given the green light by Board members to develop a business plan for the installation of surveillance cameras in a number of downtown neighbourhoods. The cameras cost a minimum $20,000 each and can be as more than five times that figure depending on the specific technology used. Additional costs for monitoring and reviewing the CCTV feeds are exclusive of this figure.
In pitching the idea, Chief Graham suggested that the cameras would be good as a counter-terrorism measure, and could be a “benefit in areas where there was a high rate of civil unrest." Graham was able to win the go-ahead for his Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) plan, despite the fact that similar proposals had been turned down twice before in the last seven years.
And very recently, on November 7, the police representatives again confirmed that the Department is "developing a proposal to install and monitor an unspecified number of CCTV, or closed circuit television cameras," on downtown Granville Street. According to an article in Wednesday's Vancouver Sun, police are concerned about the number of instances of alcohol-related disturbances that take place along the strip - notably in the area between Georgia and Davie.
There is no question that late-night partying and weekend drunkenness can be problematic. And yet, despite the gloss of the initial spin, the VPD's decision to pursue CCTV does not appear to have a coherent rationale to support it. In the aforementioned newspaper article, four reasons are mentioned to support the installation of cameras: (1) police are getting tired of dealing with the high volume of arrests that have been made; (2) there are the potential safety concerns for officers (who get assaulted trying when trying to deal with the hooligans); (3) assigning more police to Granville on the weekend takes extra resources ; and (4) cameras will, merely be being present, deter crime ("People will choose not to do things, because they realize they're being monitored.")
It is the VPSN's convention that none of these arguments actually supports the case the police are trying to make. It has never been established that the presence of cameras, particularly in entertainment districts, has led to a reduction in crime in a given area. For one, people who want to commit a crime without being caught on tape can and will move to the next street over. A number of studies support this, pointing to the potential for CCTV to migrate crime, while suggesting that any evidence to say that they reduce it is far less compelling... and in many cases simply nonexistent.
This is of particular concern with the Granville proposal which is being developed to include an "unknown number" of cameras. Intoxicated party-goers are, in fact, one of the groups least likely to be concerned with - or even aware of - being caught on tape. (Indeed, if they're assaulting police officers then it's unclear that cameras will act as a deterrent at all... and one might even go so far as to wonder if they could be an incentive to the rabble-rousers). The sense of disconnect between inebriated people looking for trouble and surveillance cameras has already been demonstrated via well-known sporting-related riots that have taken place in other cities ... often under the watchful eye of visible surveillance cameras. What this suggests is that the vigilant police, in responding to CCTV generated issues on Granville, will likely continue to need to the same number of extra officers, putting them in the same situations as before. In other words, there is little to sustain the argument that the cameras will lead to a reduction in policing costs or staff-time.
One other point needs to be made here. In September 2006, when VPSN members conducted a surveillance mapping project along Granville Avenue, they found that it already had a substantial number of privately administered cameras in place - outside clubs and theatres, near residences, and within and outside a large number of shops and services. In fact, it turned out that Granville Street had more cameras on it than any other street that had been inventoried up to that point. All of which also begs the question: if several dozen privately paid for cameras are already insufficient to provide a deterrent, why would we be in any rush to fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars for even more?
Wouldn't that be a little like throwing your money away on a bender?
Our Civil Liberties Under Threat
When the most 2006 camera proposal was introduced in May, the The Province ran an editorial a few days later quoting Richard Rosenberg, professor emeritus at the University of B.C. and a board member of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, who argued that the cameras are "a serious erosion of a citizen's right to appear in public spaces without being monitored." There’s that and the questionable evidence as to the efficacy of closed circuit television for reducing various types of crime. Research from various spots around the globe (particularly the US and UK) are consistently inconclusive when it comes to assessing the impact of CCTV on crime rates and crime prevention. These two points - on the actual efficacy of the cameras, as well as on the loss of civil liberties - continue to be essential to the discussion. All to often they appear to be dismissed by a police department that seems eager to install technology, regardless of larger social costs. This suggests a third concern - process. Citizens of the city are being shut out of the discussion on CCTV because there are simply few available means for them to have a reasonable chance to provide meaningful comment on the proposals that are being advanced... On top of this there is almost no opportunity to be assured that their opinions will be valued or incorporated into decisions that are made.
The Vancouver Public Space Network is concerned about the role that these cameras will play in the surveillance and securitization of public space. To find out more about the work we're doing on this issue contact us.
- The minutes of the May 17, 2006 Police Board Meeting
- Glenn Bohn. High-tech solution pitched to end Granville Mall violence. Vancouver Sun. November 8, 2006
- For more information on the VPD’s 2002 attempt to install cameras see the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) website.
- BC Civil Liberties Association - Position Paper: Video Surveillance in Public Places. June 1999.
- Carnegie Community Action Project. Closed Circuit Television Surveillance of Public Space in Vancouver: A Brief Overview of Evidence from the UK and Arguments About It's Use in the Downtown Eastside (PDF 256 KB). Written in 1999 in response to the VPD's attempt to target the DTES with surveillance cameras.
- Martin Gill & Angela Spriggs. Assessing the Impact of CCTV. (February 2005). This extensive study of surveillance technology was commissioned by the UK Home Office. The study was designed to evaluate the efficacy of CCTV in light of the prevailing arguments for this sort of technology, and did so by comparing a variety of measures - crime statistics, public perceptions of safety, changes in behaviour and others - across a number of districts both before and after CCTV systems were installed. The most comprehensive study of its kind, the authors determined that despite the substantial push for security measures such as CCTV, "the evidence reviewed... [suggest] it cannot be deemed a success. It has cost a lot of money and it has not produced the anticipated benefits."