Surveillance cameras in Charlottetown intrude into daily lives on major scale

Published on August 7, 2015

Boyd Driscoll of Hansen Electric installs a camera on a utility pole at the corner of Prince Street and Kent Street in Charlottetown.

©Jim Day/The Guardian

People in Charlottetown can now rest easy. You can drive in the city, pick up a coffee, park, walk to your workplace, have lunch, return to your vehicle, pump some gas and drive home  - all while under video camera surveillance and thus safe from assault, threat or harassment. All is well, or is it?

City police say the more than 60 (and as many as 80) new surveillance cameras being installed throughout the downtown are in the interests of public safety. Police also state they will be a deterrent to crime. Both arguments are likely very true.

But at what cost? The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees certain fundamental liberties for citizens living in a free and democratic society. Being under constant surveillance doesn’t necessarily follow that description.

The cameras are being installed with the co-operation and financial support of local businesses. Police co-operated by identifying the best location. The cameras and installation are not cheap, estimated at $5,000 each. It’s also true they are not hidden surveillance cameras. People will be able to see them and know that they’re there.

Many will see nothing wrong with vastly increased numbers of cameras following one’s every move in the downtown area, arguing “If you don’t break any laws, then you have nothing to worry about.” That should not be the deciding factor in this argument.

We have an expectation of privacy, especially in public and common areas. But those expectations have suffered a reversal with the recent changes to the criminal code brought in by the federal government after last year’s terrorist attacks at a Quebec military base and at the National War Memorial and Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. Those changes were controversial and passed only after much debate and amid promises to rescind them — or the most controversial elements — should the Opposition form the next government. A knee jerk reaction to two isolated cases doesn’t justify curbing the rights and freedoms of the general citizenry.

It’s true that surveillance cameras are now the norm in many private businesses, in parking lots, in shops and stores etc. Many people are not bothered by them, or their initial apprehension is gone and now we don't give them a second thought. Cameras in stores have helped identify shoplifters or robbers and gas and dash culprits and the like. But that doesn’t necessarily justify their unlimited use.

Now they will be located at almost every street corner and intersection in the downtown, to supplement cameras already around and inside businesses. If the city and businesses are so concerned with greater protection and security, then why not hire several more police officers dedicated to street patrolling in the downtown, and assisting business owners. The average citizen who minds his or her own businesses just wants to be left alone.

The cameras will make some people uncomfortable. Various studies and surveys in the U.S. have found numerous cases of abuse as the result of surveillance cameras. Some involve police while others were using the cameras for blackmail purposes. If people monitoring the cameras simply used them to assist in an investigation or solve a crime, well, that’s one thing. But the envelope is usually pushed past the bounds of original intent.

This is a fairly dramatic and far-reaching development in the downtown core. Yet, the issue was apparently not discussed in any public meeting of Charlottetown City Council.

Who gets to see the tapes? Charlottetown is exempt from public scrutiny under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. There is no way to check that surveillance is being used for the intended purpose. Who is policing the police?

Our gentle Island is following the lead of many large cities in the U.S. and elsewhere following the 9/11 attacks in New York City. Monitoring or identifying terror suspects were the excuses used to justify a network of surveillance cameras. Now they monitor everyone.

Are we sleeping any more safely in our beds tonight?