McMaster University, Communications Studies Programme
Privacy Rights and Video Surveillance
February 13, 2002
Privacy Commissioner of Canada
I'm here to talk to you about what I regard as the most urgently
important privacy issue facing Canadian society today: video
surveillance of public places. I'm here because it's reported
that the Hamilton police department wants to install six video
surveillance cameras in downtown public areas from James Street
to Walnut Street.
As Privacy Commissioner of Canada I don't have jurisdiction
over the Hamilton police force. But as the Officer of Parliament
mandated to oversee and defend the privacy rights of all Canadians,
I not only have the jurisdiction but the duty to warn if something
is about to destroy those privacy rights. And that, I hope to
persuade you today, is what installing police surveillance cameras
in our public streets will do.
I want to persuade the people of Hamilton to think very
carefully about this proposal by your police force-and to consider
that trading away the fundamental human right of privacy for
an illusion of greater safety is not the way to go.
The choices you make will quite literally help determine
what kind of society - how free a society - we have in Canada,
not only for ourselves, but also for our children and grandchildren.
The cameras you're contemplating here in Hamilton - and those
that will follow in all the other cities that will imitate you
if you go ahead with this - are the thin edge of the wedge that
will irrevocably change our whole notion of our rights and freedoms.
What I'm talking about is what Justice LaForest of the Supreme
Court of Canada said in a 1990 decision:
"To permit unrestricted video surveillance by agents
of the state would seriously diminish the degree of privacy we
can reasonably expect to enjoy in a free society ... We must
always be alert to the fact that modern methods of electronic
surveillance have the potential, if uncontrolled, to annihilate
After the tragic events of September 11, I stated publicly
that privacy is not an absolute right. There clearly can be circumstances
where it is legitimate and necessary to sacrifice some elements
of privacy in the interests of vital security precautions. But
I suggested that the burden of proof must always be on those
who say such a sacrifice is necessary.
I recommended that any proposed measure to limit or infringe
privacy must meet four very specific criteria. First, it has
to be demonstrably necessary to address a specific problem. Second,
it must be demonstrably likely to be effective in addressing
that problem. Third, it must be proportional to the security
benefit to be derived. In other words, you don't use a sledgehammer
to kill a fly. And, finally it must be demonstrable that no less
privacy invasive measure would suffice to achieve the same result.
I believe that these tests must be applied to any proposal
to install the surveillance cameras of the state on any of our
city streets. And I believe that the proposal - certainly here
in Hamilton - would fail every one of those tests. I'll come
back to this in a moment, but first let me talk a little about
privacy itself. Privacy - your right to control access to yourself
and to information about yourself - is a fundamental human right,
recognized as such by the United Nations.
It is, as our Supreme Court has said, at the heart of liberty
in a modern state. In fact, many believe it's the right from
which our other freedoms flow - freedom of speech, freedom of
thought, freedom of association, just about any freedom you can
name. But privacy is more than a human right - it's also an innate
human need. When you go home at night, you probably close the
blinds. It's not because you're trying to hide something. You
just instinctively need your privacy, your freedom from being
observed. If you're on a bus or a plane, and someone starts reading
over your shoulder, you probably feel uncomfortable. What you're
reading isn't a secret. It's just that your privacy is being
If you've ever had your home or even your car broken into,
you'll know that the sense of personal violation can be even
worse than the actual loss of whatever was stolen. This essential
human need, and fundamental right, is in danger of slipping away
from us. And once it's lost, it will be very, very hard to get
We're living in a time when technological, social, and
political developments threaten our privacy at every turn. That's
why I believe that privacy will be the defining issue of this
decade. We are at a crossroads: If the choices we make allow
privacy to be destroyed, freedom will be destroyed with it.
And if privacy is the defining issue of the decade, I believe
that video surveillance is the defining issue within that broader
I know that some people say, "What's the harm? So
there's going to be a few cameras - big deal." In fact,
in Kelowna, B.C., one of the first cities where I confronted
this issue, a business leader was quoted as saying that having
cameras everywhere would be no different that having a police
officer on every corner and nobody could object to that. Well,
there are places in the world where there's a police officer
on every corner. They're called police states. That's not the
way we do things in Canada.
We have a right to go about our lives - our lawful, peaceable
business - without feeling that we're under the constant eye
of agents of the state. So when you ask, "What's wrong with
cameras?" My answer is that, for one thing, being watched
changes the way we behave. That's well known. In the late 1920s,
Werner Heisenberg showed that you couldn't observe subatomic
particles without changing their behaviour. Ever since, physical
and behavioural scientists have used the term "Heisenberg
effect" to describe what they're all aware of - that being
observed has real effects. The psychological impact of feeling
under constant observation - the kind of thing we'll have if
we allow surveillance cameras to proliferate - is enormous, incalculable.
Let's think about those police states I was talking about
a moment ago, where people always feel watched by a visible or
undercover police presence.
The thing that has always struck me when I was travelling
in countries that were not free, in police states, is the grimness
and drabness of life that results from this utter lack of privacy.
There's a kind of sullenness in the air.
People know they're being watched - or worse, they're never
quite sure whether they're being watched. They censor their speech
and their behaviour. They hurry along the streets with their
heads down. They're reluctant to talk to, or even look at, any
strangers. They even hesitate to make contact in public with
people they do know. There is very little street life or spontaneity.
You've probably felt this same phenomenon yourself, on
a much smaller scale. If a police car pulls alongside you while
you're driving or stays right behind you, don't you automatically
feel just a little paranoid and wonder if you've done anything
wrong? You become self-conscious and maybe a little nervous.
You might even drive over-cautiously, to the point of being dangerous.
In short, you change your behaviour, just because you feel that
you are under scrutiny by an agent of the state.
Is a police camera really any different?
Limiting the way the police collect information about us
is fundamental to our freedoms in Canada. Some people are going
to argue that it makes the job of the police harder. Well, we
all want crime prevented, and criminals caught. Our police do
a vital job, usually excellently. But in this country, in a free
society, we don't give the police unlimited power to violate
the rights of the citizenry. We don't allow them to build dossiers
on citizens "just in case." We don't allow them to
force people at random to identify themselves on the street.
We don't allow them to enter and search homes, or open mail,
or wiretap phones, without a warrant.
Instead, we say that there always has to be a balance -
a carefully reasoned balance - between the legitimate needs of
law enforcement and security on one hand, and the need to maintain
our rights and freedoms and values on the other. I suggest to
you that video surveillance cameras on public streets needlessly
and dangerously tip that balance.
You'll notice that I'm making a distinction here between
cameras on public streets and those that are in private places
open to the public, for instance in banks or convenience stores.
First of all, in places such as stores there is an element
of consent. If you don't want to appear before a camera, you
have the choice of refusing to enter a given store. But if we
end up with cameras all over our public streets, short of levitating
above them, you have no way of withholding consent and still
getting from place to place.
Second, those cameras in private places are for a very
limited kind of anti-crime purpose. There's no likelihood of
anyone being interested more broadly in you as a citizen - who
you meet, where you go, what you do.
I'm sure some people will say, "Come on: police cameras
on the street will make us feel safer." Look, we all want
to feel safer.
But we'd be safer if the police could come into our houses
whenever they wanted, just to look around. They could catch more
criminals if they were free to listen to all our telephone conversations,
just to make sure we weren't committing a crime. We could allow
them to intercept and read all our mail and e-mail, just in case.
These would be pretty effective means of making us safer-but
no one in their right mind would argue for them.
We don't violate our most fundamental values, the very
things that make our society worth living in, just because it
makes us feel safer.
Now, some people may object that the video cameras will
be in public places, not in private ones, so privacy isn't an
issue. How can it be reasonable to expect privacy in a city street?
My answer is that, obviously, there are degrees, gradations of
You're entitled to more privacy in your own home than when
you step out into the street. But you still have the right to
expect some privacy when you step out your door. Sure, you have
to expect to be noticed, in passing. And people who know you
may recognize you. But that's not the same as being systematically
monitored and observed by anyone, let alone by the police.
If you're on a street chatting with a friend or on a cell
phone, you can expect that strangers passing by may overhear
parts of your conversation. But if a stranger stops and stands
close to you and is obviously listening, you'll probably feel-quite
rightly - that your privacy is being invaded.
And if someone across the street or on top of a building
were systematically listening to your conversation through a
directional microphone, you would certainly believe that your
right to privacy was being violated. If you're sitting on a park
bench reading a letter, you should expect that people can see
you, and see what you're doing.
But you wouldn't expect someone to sit beside you and read
over your shoulder, or to zoom in on your letter with a video
Suppose a police officer decided to walk directly behind
you on the street all day, quite obviously and deliberately following
you everywhere you go. I'm sure you'd find that unacceptable,
even if he wasn't saying a word to you or bothering you in any
direct way. You'd probably consider it harassment - because he
was invading your privacy.
How different is it, then, if your movements are simply
tracked by a police offer watching you on screen as you pass
from the range of one camera to the next?
So, I believe you do have a reasonable expectation of privacy
when you're out in public. And more than that, you have a fundamental
right to privacy. That's the problem with that term the courts
have been using, "reasonable expectation of privacy."
A notice telling you you're going to be monitored or recorded
by video cameras in a public place can tell you that it's not
"reasonable" to expect any privacy. But it can't magically
erase your fundamental right to privacy. This fundamental right
can't be eliminated simply by putting up signs telling you that
it's going to be ignored or trampled on.
Some people in Hamilton may say, "the cameras won't
bother me because I don't go into those neighbourhoods".
But if those cameras have the same effect - or lack thereof -
that surveillance cameras elsewhere have had, the most they will
do is displace crime into areas outside their range. Then the
argument will be to put cameras there too. The logical extension
will be cameras everywhere.
But even that is only the beginning. Video surveillance
is just the first step. As the system stands right now, you are
seen, but at least you can remain anonymous unless someone watching
the videos knows you.
But what we call "function creep" virtually guarantees
that if you put up enough cameras they'll soon be linked to biometric
technology that will take away that anonymity.
Biometric facial recognition technology can analyze the
image of your face, digitize it, classify it, and link it up
to a police database. That can be used to compare your face against
the images of known criminals or suspects - or simply to identify
you, to associate your face with your name and address. This
isn't science fiction; it's existing technology. It's already
being used in some places. It was used at last year's Super Bowl.
It was set up on the streets of Tampa, Florida, and a growing
number of U.S. airports are adopting it. Again, you may say,
"so what? Let them compare me against anyone they want.
As soon as the technology shows I'm not someone they're looking
for, that's the end of it and no harm done."
Trouble is, these biometric systems are far from foolproof.
They don't correctly match people to their own photos a lot of
the time. They also match people to the wrong photos, photos
of other people-falsely identifying them as someone the police
can be looking for. You could find yourself suddenly surrounded
by police officers with guns drawn-just because the technology
hiccupped. And it won't be long before we see these video surveillance
systems linked to our driver's license or passport photos. Before
you know it, when you walk along the street, the police will
know exactly who you are. Your fundamental privacy right of anonymity
will have disappeared.
In Canada, we don't allow the police to stop people at
random and force them to identify themselves. You aren't even
required to carry any identification. But now the technology
will do it for them.
Some of you may be thinking, "So what? I've got nothing
to hide." Well, think a little longer.
Think how easily the simple, innocent things you do can
be misinterpreted by someone observing you. Someone stops you
on the street and asks for directions. You tell him what he wants
to know, and maybe chat for a moment. Then he goes on his way.
What you don't know is that on the police screen, biometrics
has identified him - rightly or wrongly - as a suspected terrorist.
And, of course, your name and address are available too. The
watchers have no way of knowing what was said, just that you
met and talked. Next thing you know - or rather, don't know -
you're in a police database as a suspect yourself.
Or there's a coffee shop or little restaurant you like
to go to regularly. The location's convenient, or you particularly
like the food. But you have no way of knowing that the police
consider it an organized crime hangout. Because you're observed
and identified as someone who goes there all the time, maybe
you end up on some police list of suspicious characters - with
no chance to ever explain yourself.
Maybe cameras were put up because prostitution is a problem
in the area. You're stopped by a prostitute who asks you to protect
her-she says someone is stalking her and asks you to walk her
down the street to her car. Because you're a decent person and
you care about the safety of a fellow human being, you decide
to take her request seriously and you walk with her. The camera
watches you, and you're now on record as accompanying a prostitute.
You'd never know about any of these misinterpretations. Except
maybe one day you apply for a job that requires a security clearance-and
you can't get one, for some unexplained reason. Or you're refused
entry to the United States.
As cameras multiply and observation increases, we'll learn
to avoid doing things that could be misinterpreted.
And that's the whole point: If you have to go through life
knowing that everywhere you go, everyone you meet, everything
you do, may be observed, scrutinized, cross-referenced, judged,
maybe misinterpreted and used against you by persons unknown,
by authorities of the state - if you have to go through life
like that, you are not truly free.
So against this background, let me now come back to those
four tests I mentioned: necessity, effectiveness, proportionality
and availability of a less privacy invasive alternative.
First, necessity. Is crime so spiralling out of control
here in Hamilton, that the enormously invasive remedy of police
cameras is necessary? Actually it's not. Crime rates in Hamilton
are decreasing, and have been for some time. Your Superintendent
Terry Sullivan was quoted in the Hamilton Spectator as saying
a rash of criminal incidents in the late 1990s was what led police
to come up with this video surveillance idea. Well, in 1997,
there were just over 50,000 criminal code incidents in the city.
Since then, that figure has dropped steadily. In 2000 there were
44,000 - a 12% drop from just three years previously. That's
hardly a crime crisis, is it?
The executive director of one of your business improvement
areas said that businesses are concerned about security, property
damage, and vandalism. Video cameras are, in her words, "a
tool to get a handle on this." But property offences were
about 20% lower in 2000 than they were in 1997. Homicides, assaults,
sexual assaults, break-and-enters, car thefts, the very things
that most people worry most about, were less common in 2000 than
they were three years before. You didn't need video surveillance
to bring those crime rates down. Why would anyone think you need
It's the same story for crime rates in Ontario as a whole,
and for the rest of Canada as well. So there is no evidence of
some huge new crime wave that makes it urgent and necessary to
turn to video surveillance cameras as a solution. But even if
there were, that still brings us to the next test-are video surveillance
cameras on public streets effective in reducing crime? The answer
is no. All the available evidence indicates that at very best
they displace it - move it from where the cameras are, to where
Even a spokesman for the RCMP detachment out in Kelowna
- where they've already put up a camera - was quoted last summer
as saying the cameras would mostly displace crime. He said crime
would be displaced from downtown to Kelowna's residential neighbourhoods
- and that would be a good thing because homeowners would be
quicker to call the police.
In December, I asked the RCMP Commissioner for figures
on the number of arrests brought about by the Kelowna camera
since its installation - and for statistics comparing the overall
crime rate in Kelowna during the months the camera has been used
to the rate for the same period the previous year. I was told
the information doesn't exist - even though this is supposed
to be a pilot project.
In the U.S., the picture is no better. In Long Island,
in Newark, and in Charleston, West Virginia, they set up video
surveillance systems and found that they made no difference to
crime rates. In Mount Vernon, New York, they ran one of these
systems for three years and then dismantled it because it didn't
lead to a single arrest.
Last June, the city of Tampa in Florida installed a video
surveillance system that included a biometric facial recognition
system. The system never identified a single individual in the
police's database of photographs. What it did do was make a lot
of false matches, including people of the wrong gender and with
big differences in age or weight. In fact, the system was so
inaccurate that the police department stopped using it a couple
of months after it was installed.
The United Kingdom has more video surveillance cameras
than any society in the world - more than two million of them,
and the number is increasing every year.
And the facts speak for themselves.
In Glasgow, they evaluated their surveillance system one
year after it was set up. At first glance, it looked as though
the crime rate had fallen. But a harder look at the statistics
showed that crime had actually increased by 9%.
London has roughly 150,000 video surveillance cameras.
Last year, it had more cameras than ever before. And guess what?
Last year, street crime in London increased by 40%.
My Office spoke just 2 weeks ago with Jason Ditton, a professor
of criminology in the Faculty of Law at the University of Sheffield
in England. Professor Ditton is widely recognized as perhaps
the world's leading expert on the effectiveness of open-street
video surveillance. He's been studying it since 1993. Here's
what he told us:
"There isn't convincing evidence that open-street
closed circuit TV reduces either crime or the fear of crime.
Indeed, for every reliable study that shows a benefit, I can
show another that contradicts it. If evidence of success is a
prerequisite of installation, I can confirm that no such evidence
And, you know, it really isn't surprising that video surveillance
can at best displace crime, not reduce it. Logic tells us the
A whole lot of factors-social, psychological, economic,
you name it - underlie criminal behaviour. Putting up a bunch
of cameras isn't going to make drug addicts quit cold turkey
and go sip a latte at Starbucks instead.
It isn't going to make prostitutes sign up for secretarial
college. And it isn't going to make muggers or purse-snatchers
repent their life of crime. It might just make them move away
from the cameras by switching to home invasions or car-jackings.
And unlike a police officer on the beat, a video camera
can't make you safer anyway. If you're being mugged or beaten
up or stabbed, it can't jump down off the pole and rescue you.
By the time the police get there, the crime will probably be
long over and the damage to you will be done - these things usually
happen in a flash. So, in summary, there is no convincing reason
to believe that video surveillance cameras here in Hamilton will
reduce crime or make you safer.
That brings us to the third test - proportionality. I don't
think I need to belabour this one. Since there are no demonstrable
safety benefits, the harm these cameras cause can hardly be proportional.
There is no reason to believe they will make you safer.
There is every reason to believe-to know-that they will reduce
privacy, and contribute to creating a society where our fundamental
rights and freedoms are greatly and permanently diminished.
And now for the final test - are there any less privacy-invasive
Sure, there are lots of alternatives to look at-things
like improved street lighting, neighbourhood watch programs,
or greater police presence on the streets. And of course, there
are broader initiatives to consider that may go deeper towards
the roots of the problem - initiatives in social policy, economic
policy, education and rehabilitation programs, urban development,
you name it.
So I suggest: Forget about the cameras, and focus on those
other crime prevention measures. I'd like to be able to say to
the rest of Canada, when I go around the country speaking against
the spread of these cameras: "Look at Hamilton. The people
of Hamilton took the time to think about the facts, to look at
the evidence, to consider what they are about to lose, and they
said no to the cameras."
And I'm going to say to them what I say to you now: Be
an example of strength, not timidity. Base your decisions on
facts, not on scare-mongering. Build a genuinely safe free society,
not a falsely safe police state. Show your commitment to the
values that make this country great. Show that you think our
country, our society, is worth preserving and stand up for privacy.