Most retailers in Canada are failing to follow new federal rules when it comes to operating video surveillance cameras in their stores and businesses, according to a study by a professor of information studies at the University of Toronto.
Andrew Clement, co-founder of the Identity, Privacy and Security Institute, found that not a single video camera in one of Canada’s largest malls complied with the signage requirements of the federal Personal Information, Protection and Electronic Documents Act.
'If we lose control over our personal images, then it's hard to maintain control over other kinds of information.'—Andrew Clement, professor of information studies
Clement and his graduate students collected information on video cameras set up in two Toronto area malls, the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto and Square One Shopping Centre in Mississauga. Of the hundreds of cameras on the properties, the students found only about 30 per cent had any kind of sign alerting people to their use and none met even the minimum standards required under the law.
"The findings of this study raise disturbing implications, as both video surveillance penetration and capabilities are expanding rapidly without appropriate understanding, transparency, oversight or accountability," the authors of the study wrote.
Under the law, stores are required to post signs outside their entrances that alert customers to the use of video surveillance, its purpose and a contact number so people can find out how they can obtain a copy of any footage that contains their image.
"I was surprised that in our study we didn't find a single one and it shocks me a bit," Clement told CBC News. "There is a resistance on the part of these private sector operators to entertain the idea that they have any obligations."
Clement and his students have now set up a website advising people of their rights when it comes to video surveillance at surveillancerights.ca. And they are doing further work with funding from the office of the federal privacy commissioner. The group has even developed a free app to download that allows people to document and record each time they encounter a surveillance camera.
Nathalie Desrosiers, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, called Clement's findings surprising. She said while many people have come to accept video surveillance as part of everyday life, people also expect to have their privacy rights respected.
People have a right to choose if they want to enter a store and then have their image recorded, she said, but if they don't know they are being recorded, they can't make that choice.
"It's a question of not depriving people of the opportunity to make a decision themselves about what they want to share and what they do not want to share and that's a fundamental aspect of human dignity."
Desrosiers says this also raises concerns about how the recorded information is being used, and whether the technology is being mined for other reasons, such as targeted marketing or law enforcement.
Chantal Bernier, Canada's assistant privacy commissioner, told CBC News her office receives very few complaints about video cameras used by businesses.
"People don't know … that they are under video surveillance," she said. "If they knew how much surveillance went on, they would certainly object."
While video surveillance cameras have become almost commonplace, Bernier says their effectiveness in terms of reducing theft is questionable.
"Statistics on preventive video surveillance shows that it's practically non-existent. Even in relation to criminal investigations its effect is quite limited," she said. "So the case for video surveillance in relation to security still has to be made."
But Bernier admits her office has little clout when it comes to making companies comply with the law. "The only power we really have is the power to name," she said. "We use it only as prescribed by law and when it is in the public interest to name."
Last year, in her annual report, Privacy Commissioner of Canada Jennifer Stoddart did single out Sobeys, a major Canadian grocery chain, for failing to follow the law. The case involved a customer who slipped and fell in the store. She was not aware that the whole incident had been taped and when she found out later, Sobeys initially refused to provide her with a copy of the recording.
"Our enforcement powers have been terribly limited," Bernier said, adding all her office can do for now is try to raise awareness among both the Canadian public and private sector businesses. "We need to add enforcement powers."
"We regulate elevators and all kinds of things. I think video surveillance should be brought under a similar regime," he said. "If we lose control over our personal images, then it's hard to maintain control over other kinds of information."