A closed-circuit security camera keeps an eye on London's Trafalgar Square. More than four million cameras monitor life in Britain and the country's information commissioner says Britain is "sleep-walk[ing] into a surveillance society. (Akira Suemori/Associated Press)
Someone is watching: should we worry?
Last Updated February 9, 2007
Take a walk around London, England: as you're enjoying the sights, look up and wave from time to time. There's a good chance that someone is watching.
More than four million closed circuit television (CCTV) security cameras are whirring away over British streets and buildings — one for every 14 citizens. That day spent wandering through London? You were probably "on-camera" roughly 300 times.
The prevalence of CCTV monitoring was driven home to Britons in July of 2005 when cameras on the London Underground captured chilling images of young suicide bombers just moments before they detonated explosives and killed 52 people. The four men look grimfaced as they push through transit turnstiles with oversized backpacks full of explosives.
The man in charge of protecting privacy in Britain, Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, says his country has "sleep-walk[ed] into a surveillance society" without a proper debate or public consultation.
"We've got to ask where do we want the lines to be drawn," Thomas told the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2006.
"How much do we want surveillance changing the nature of society in a democratic nation?"
Cameras in Canada
Canada's public places aren't nearly so well watched but police across the country — faced with concerns about terrorism and violent crime — want more cameras on the streets.
Hamilton in southern Ontario was an early pioneer of CCTV monitoring, introducing video surveillance into several high-crime areas in 2002.
The move apparently bore fruit in December 2006 when a clip from one of the cameras was posted on the video-sharing site YouTube and police made an arrest in a murder case shortly afterward.
A screen-grab from YouTube shows surveillance video taken at a hip-hop club where a 22-year-old Hamilton man was killed last month. (Canadian Press, Hamilton Police)
The clip showed young men outside a popular club at about the same time as someone was killed inside.
Toronto police launch pilot project
Toronto police have begun a public consultation process aimed at getting support for permanently installed CCTV cameras in certain parts of the city.
A few big public events were subject to video surveillance in recent years, including the 2006 version of Caribana, a Caribbean street festival.
Video cameras temporarily mounted on poles downtown also helped police in a high-profile murder case on Boxing Day in 2005, when 15-year-old Jane Creba — who was out shopping with her mother — was caught in the crossfire as two gangs shot it out.
The city's police website says CCTV cameras would be installed in selected neighbourhoods for six months before assessing their effectiveness and listening to people's views for and against video surveillance.
The cameras will be used in "a proportional, accountable and balanced manner" with full attention paid to concerns about invasion of privacy, the website says. Prominent signs would warn that the area was under video surveillance.
Other provinces and cities are considering camera programs of their own and paying close attention to how things go in Toronto and Hamilton.
The four young British men, whose suicide attack on the London transit system on July 7, 2005 killed 52 people are pictured here in a British Rail surveillance video several hours before detonating their explosives. (Metropolitan Police)
Erodes privacy rights, activists warn
Canadian civil and legal rights activists have echoed their British counterparts and warned that the untrammelled use of CCTV surveillance is dangerous and Orwellian.
Alan Borovoy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says video monitoring of public places needs to be tightly regulated.
"Citizens in a free country should have a presumptive right to get lost … to wander around without government keeping tabs on us."
George Radwanski, during his stint as Canada's privacy commissioner from 2000 to 2003, called the video monitoring of public places "the most urgently important privacy issue facing Canadian society today."
In a speech at McMaster University in Hamilton just before cameras were installed in the city, Radwanski warned there hadn't been enough public debate on the idea.
"The cameras you're contemplating here," he said, "are the thin edge of the wedge that will irrevocably change our whole notion of your rights and freedoms."
Radwanski also fought against the use of video surveillance by police in other parts of the country, not always successfully.
He filed a lawsuit against the RCMP in 2002 over CCTV cameras installed in a neighbourhood of Kelowna, B.C., in an effort to deter prostitution, drug dealing and violence.
The province's Supreme Court refused to hear the case, saying that Radwanski had exceeded his jurisdiction. The lawsuit was later withdrawn.
The evidence remains sketchy but it generally points towards public support of the idea of CCTV cameras.
Radwanski's lawsuit was not universally popular in Kelowna. One resident told CBC News that video surveillance "protects my children … or keeps the drug people moving away because they don't want to be on camera."
Many business owners support cameras
In Toronto, many business owners have been particularly supportive of the police installing CCTV cameras.
Some have even offered to help pay for the pilot program, although its $2 million cost is being picked up by the province.
"If you're not doing anything wrong, you've got nothing to worry about," John Kiru of the Toronto Area Business Improvement Association told the Globe and Mail. "I'm of the view that this [CCTV program] is the right thing to do."
Law enforcement officials say video surveillance can be both a deterrent to crime and a valuable forensic tool.
Cameras are highly visible and might stop a mugger or a rapist. If an offense is committed within view of police cameras, investigators can pore over video images to find clues and suspects.
Statistics from U.S. cities that use video surveillance point to reductions in crime in areas where cameras are installed.
Civil libertarians have counter-arguments to these and other points made by those in favour of video surveillance but the fact remains that the public in Canada and elsewhere wants crime deterred, and offenders caught.
High-profile cases like the London Underground bombings or the Creba slaying in Toronto tend to ramp up support for police CCTV programs. Canadians may not be sleepwalking to British levels of video surveillance, but life in Canadian cities is definitely becoming more camera-friendly.
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More on security cameras
- Toronto police seek feedback on installing security cameras
- Jan. 31, 2007
- Hamilton police arrest suspect after video shown on YouTube
- Dec. 20, 2006
- 8 arrested in Jane Creba shooting death
- June 13, 2006