Why a police request for video camera footage in St. Thomas is raising concerns

The St. Thomas police service is among a growing number of Ontario police forces that want to tap into home and business video surveillance systems to help fight crime. But a former Ontario privacy commissioner warns the practice will invade personal privacy.

Former privacy commissioner says if police want to view private video surveillance, they should go to a judge

Some police forces in Ontario want to tap into the rising popularity of home and business surveillance systems in an effort to fight crime. (CBC)

The St. Thomas police service is among a growing number of Ontario police forces that want to tap into home and business video surveillance systems to help fight crime.  

Police are encouraging home and business owners in St. Thomas to voluntarily identify their video surveillance locations in the community, so they can be mapped and stored on an internal database.

"We thought it was a great way to utilize cameras and technology that is already in the community to help assist with investigations. In essence, it's an ongoing effort to collaborate with our community with a shared approach toward crime prevention," said Const. Dan Gillies, a spokesperson for the force.

St. Thomas police spokesperson Constable Dan Gillies says a new program that maps the presence of private surveillance systems in the community is aimed at fighting and deterring crime. (St. Thomas Police)

Homeowners and businesses can register their information on the St. Thomas police website. And if there's a crime in their community, police may come and ask if they can view their video.

"They enter the types of cameras, where they're pointed, (and) how long the video will be stored," said Gillies.

Disturbing trend: Cavoukian

While police think it could help solve and deter crimes in the community, the trend disturbs former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian.

"I'm very concerned about it. I think it overlooks many considerations associated with the privacy of your home."

Former Ontario privacy commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, fears the trend toward police tracking the presence of private surveillance systems will invade personal privacy.

Cavoukian is worried about homeowners handing over videos that could include images of their neighbours and others who have no idea the information is being shared.

"I'm just saying they haven't thought through the privacy implications of the data that is captured, not just in their home, but the vicinity around it…I'm sure their neighbours wouldn't be pleased with this."

She is also concerned about how easily police could obtain the information.

"This is all routinely given over to law enforcement, whether a crime has been committed or not. So the potential for tracking of one's activities … grows exponentially."

Owner controls the video: Police

Gillies defended  the voluntary nature of the program. He said after registering their system information with the police, an owner would be under no obligation to release images to the police as part of a criminal investigation.

"We would hope obviously that people who are registering are doing so with the intention to assist police if they are called upon, but they absolutely control the video that they have."

Cavoukian said she thinks people who participate in these programs haven't thought through the privacy complications.

"I think you have to be very careful. We do not want to become a surveillance society."

The former provincial privacy commissioner said if police want to access private video surveillance as part of a criminal investigation, they should go to a judge and get a warrant for the video.

"But absent that, absent some reason for accessing the video footage, I don't think (police) should have access to it," Cavoukian said.​

"If you enjoy living in a free and open society, then you value privacy. We need to protect it."