Camera Surveillance Impacting Crime?
© 2009 FrontLine Security (Vol 4, No 4)

Video surveillance cameras have been used widely for two or three decades and are now so prevalent that almost every Canadian living in an urban environment is captured on camera at some point in their day.

Video cameras have been widely used for two or three decades and are now so prevalent that almost every Canadian living in an urban environment is captured on camera at some point in their day.

Private closed-circuit, or CCTV, cameras in convenience stores, shopping malls and banks, along with cameras on buses, subways, taxis and in airports are numerous and proliferating. It has been estimated that on any given day, in the Calgary downtown core, a person will probably appear on surveillance devices 20 times in some fashion – out for lunch, in their own office setting or going to and fro on the C-Train.

“We already live in a surveillance society,” asserts Tom Keenan. Keenan, a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social implications, has engaged in an urban “spot the camera” game to illustrate his point. “We do a little exercise every year at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference where we walk from the conference venue until we can find 100 video cameras, and then we go for a beer,” he told the Calgary Herald. “In New York City, it took us 12 minutes.”

Studies confirm the exploding use world-wide, especially since the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States. Britain, for example, now has an estimated 4.2 million cameras, the most extensive network in the world. In Canada, one of the most significant developments has been the emergence of open-street cameras in many of the larger cities. The use of CCTV in open, public places such as streets and parks are most often police-sponsored camera systems established in conjunction with municipal governments.

The Beginnings in Canada
Public or open-street camera surveillance in Canada can be traced back to 1991, when Sherbrooke, Quebec, became one of the first Canadian cities to install a surveillance camera in a public space to curb delinquent or criminal behaviour. A single camera was introduced by local police to watch a ­specific area in the downtown bar district. Following this pioneering effort, the concept actually took several more years to become established. CCTV then gained popularity in the Canadian crime control culture circa the mid-1990s.

Today, criminologists and security experts credit the city of Sudbury for ­establishing the first successful open-street camera system – paving the way for the expansion of such technology as a crime-fighting tool in Canada. Former Sudbury chief of police, Alex McCauley, initiated the project in response to concerns from business owners and seniors regarding safety in the downtown area. Plans for a video monitoring system were initiated in 1994 after Chief McCauley became aware of the CityWatch program in Glasgow, Scotland – a surveillance system consisting of 32 ­cameras. McCauley visited Scotland in 1995 and formulated a proposal for CCTV in Sudbury. In December 1996, ­Sudbury became the first Ontario city to implement an open-street camera system. The project became known as Lion’s Eye in the Sky, as the Lion’s Club was a major funding partner.

Using the Lion’s Eye in the Sky as a prototype, numerous other municipal governments and police forces chose to either explore or adopt such crime fighting technology. According to the first independent study of video surveillance in Canada, at least 14 Canadian municipalities currently use surveillance cameras in public spaces and another 16 are considering them or have considered them. The report was published in 2008 by the Camera Surveillance Awareness Network (SCAN), which operates under the banner of the Surveillance Project at Queen’s University.

Security and Deterrence?
The Surveillance Project researches ways in which personal data are processed. It explores why information about people has become so important in the 21st century as well as the social, political and economic consequences of this trend. Questions of “privacy” and of “social sorting” are central to their concerns. Defining surveillance as “any systematic attention to a person’s life aimed at exerting influence over it,” the Surveillance Project studies everything from supermarket loyalty cards to police networks searching for suspects.

Security cameras are currently used for many varied applications, from office security and perimeter visuals, to traffic surveillance such as red light cameras, and a myriad of other law enforcement requirements.

Managed by a group of Queen’s University academics, the SCAN research is funded in part by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, which has concerns that the use of surveillance cameras is growing without sufficient oversight or public debate. Nevertheless Queen’s sociologist, David Lyon, maintains that SCAN has no pre-determined agenda. “We’re not grinding axes,” he told the media, “we’re raising questions and trying to set out the way things are. We really do want to give the Canadian public a better sense of what’s going on.”

Perhaps the most vital question is: “Does camera surveillance deter crime, and if so, to what degree?” According to the SCAN research, the majority of public ­camera surveillance in Canada has been introduced since 2000. Many cities have installed camera systems following widely publicized violent incidents, with the expectation that they would play a role in preventing serious crime. For example, the 1999 murder of Michael Goldie-Ryder, in London, Ontario’s downtown core, culminated in the formation of Friends Against Senseless Endings (FACE). This citizens’ group against community violence was instrumental in raising over $200,000 for London’s surveillance camera initiative.

A similar high-profile crime also led to the establishment of Hamilton’s surveillance camera project. In January 2001, an 18-year-old figure skater named Alexandre Hamel was accosted in downtown Hamilton and robbed of $100. The episode spawned a series of local news stories regarding the risk of crime in the inner city. It wasn’t long before the Hamilton Police Service joined forces with the Downtown Hamilton Business Improvement Area – launching an open-street camera system to monitor perceived trouble spots.

More recently, Toronto witnessed a push for public camera surveillance fuelled by the Boxing Day 2005 shooting of 15-year-old Jane Creba. A pilot project installed cameras in the same downtown area where the Creba shooting had occurred.

Historically, a major argument for camera surveillance has been its assumed deterrent effect. However, new studies – including the SCAN project – seem to indicate that open-street cameras may have little power to prevent crime or to act as a deterrent. “There may well be more evidence that cameras have little or no deterrent effect, since crime rates and other indicators used to measure deterrence fluctuate greatly after camera surveillance installation,” the SCAN report concludes. “At best, deterrence can be achieved only in select locations like parking garages.” The Canadian researchers also cite a University of Leicester study from 2005 that showed camera surveillance decreased vehicle theft from parking garages, but did little to deter criminal activities on city streets and open areas.

Calgary chose to introduce a one-year pilot project in early 2009. However, Calgary Police Service and city council remain realistic about what they hope the cameras will achieve. “The expected primary benefit of CCTV will be as an investigative tool, allowing police and bylaw officers to collect evidence for their investigations,” says Bill Bruce, Director of Bylaw Services for the City of Calgary. “CCTV is not a cure-all for stopping crime. As always, the public still has a vital role to play in ensuring their ­personal safety.”

Cameras started scanning Calgary streets on 12 March 2009, when the City of Calgary activated 16 closed-circuit television cameras to help police monitor crime at three trouble spots located in the downtown core. The three camera deployment areas are in the inner city community known as the East Village as well as along the Stephen Avenue Mall. According to Bruce, the camera locations were chosen through the review of multi-agency incident data, expert opinion and officer experience. During the pilot project, the camera locations may change based on new crime trends or operational factors. The system is wireless, which allows for easy and inexpensive relocation.

What about Privacy?
Predictably, some citizens remain wary of these initiatives – they cite the potential for intrusion into people’s private lives. A crucial issue being explored by the Camera Surveillance Awareness Network is the potential for open-street camera systems to threaten privacy and civil liberties. “Some cameras are already powerful enough to read cell phone text messages from 250 metres away,” the SCAN report notes. “Newer cameras – especially those used in airports and by police in investigations – are equipped with infrared and other sensor technologies that can literally ‘see’ through walls, clothes and flesh.”

Nevertheless, those involved in law enforcement, as well as the majority of ordinary Canadians, emphasize the positive potential for better quality images to fight crime. According to Bill Bruce, the outdoor cameras that are being tried in Calgary are more powerful and technologically advanced than most private security systems set up in stores or banks. The cameras, supplied by Bosch Security Systems, are designed to produce extremely high-resolution images for identification and investigative purposes. Their ability to capture facial features or to record fine details in low light conditions is far superior.

Authorities with the City of Calgary were careful to make privacy concerns a major consideration when designing and implementing the downtown CCTV pilot project. Since council approved the undertaking in 2008, the city administration has been working with the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta to ensure the project is in compliance with privacy legislation and safeguards. Signage has been posted at the camera locations since January 2009 to alert the public about the cameras. In addition to signage, the privacy of individuals in windows of buildings is being protected through image masking technology.

Bruce explains that the cameras in the Calgary pilot project are being randomly monitored by the city’s Corporate Security staff on a 24/7 basis. The monitoring is done in a secure facility not accessible to the public and recordings from the cameras are retained for 14 days. During the two-week retention period, by law officers and police are able to access the footage to help combat drug use, graffiti, assaults and other crime. The digital images are also accessible to police on their laptop computers.

Canada maintains strict protocols for how video data may be accessed and retained for investigations. Complaints about unwarranted viewing of camera footage or illegitimate access to personal information are rare. The most vocal complaints often come from those involved with criminal subcultures or those with ties to radical fringe groups such as the Anarchist Black Cross League. On the other hand, there is a legitimate argument that certain individuals in our society lacking wealth or power might be more at risk of having their privacy rights violated. Some research has suggested that public housing zones in poorer neighborhoods are increasingly being targeted by camera surveillance. Furthermore, the cameras have on occasion been used for inappropriate personal voyeuristic purposes independent of the camera system’s security aims.

When Calgary’s 14-member council, approved the city’s camera project, the decision wasn’t unanimous. At the time, one alderman, Brian Pincott opposed the initiative. He still isn’t convinced video cameras act as a deterrent or are beneficial in fighting crime, and is eagerly awaiting the ­program’s initial findings, which will be reported to city council in early 2010. “If you take a look at municipalities that have had cameras in place for 20 or 30 years – like London for example – they still haven’t figured out if they are successful or not,” Pincott told the Calgary Herald. He also believes more thought should have been placed on issues of privacy and civil liberties. “It’s a slippery slope and I think we need to be clear what we are doing when we go down that path,” he argues.

The debate lingers as the technology and its use advance. In October 2008, the province of British Columbia announced $1 million in funding targeted for cameras in downtown Vancouver, the Vancouver suburb of Surrey and the city of Kelowna. In January 2009, the city of Winnipeg began a one-year pilot project, introducing 10 cameras in 6 downtown locations. Meanwhile, Calgary city council is scheduled to evaluate the successfulness of its $500,000 pilot ­project in January or February of 2010. Like many Canadian police forces, Calgary’s is eager to adopt new technologies that prove useful in addressing crime or promoting public safety. For years, police have used tape from security cameras in businesses to identify culprits after a crime and as ­evidence in criminal proceedings. If used properly, many in law enforcement hope that public or open-street camera surveillance will be an extension of this.

Jacqueline Chartier is a freelance writer based in Calgary.
© FrontLine Security 2009