British Columbia

Cameras in Vancouver bus shelter advertising raise privacy concerns

B.C.'s privacy commissioner is keeping an eye on digital advertisements in bus stops after some in Vancouver were found to have small cameras inside. 

Company behind the ads says the built-in cameras are not in operation

A camera in a bus stop on Burrard St. and Georgia St. Is pictured in Vancouver, British Columbia on Saturday, September 7, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

B.C.'s privacy commissioner is keeping an eye on digital advertisements in bus stops after some in Vancouver were found to have small cameras inside. 

The little lenses, which aren't operational, can be seen on the side of the screens of digital advertisements in certain bus stops, like on Burrard Street in downtown Vancouver between Alberni and Georgia streets.

The cameras are raising questions about privacy rights in public spaces in a city where the use of surveillance cameras has previously been criticized.  

Outfront, the company behind the digital advertisements, says these cameras are a "default factory setting" inside their digital screens but are not connected to anything and are therefore not in operation.

"The units are mass produced and hundreds to thousands are made each year and installed all over the world by many companies," said Lisa Roscoe from Outfront, in an emailed statement.

The statement did not say why the screens contain cameras in the first place.

"I suspect it comes as a standard setting because in some countries they would be able to use them. We weren't aware of the cameras specifically when we ordered the units, but it was a moot point as we would never use them."

The company says it is taking the additional step of covering the lenses this weekend anyway.

The City of Vancouver is aware of the non-operational cameras and says it takes matters of privacy seriously.

A camera in a bus stop on Burrard St. and Georgia St. Is pictured in Vancouver, British Columbia on Saturday, September 7, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Cameras not operational, company says

Some passersby on a Saturday afternoon in downtown Vancouver were surprised to hear there were lenses in the advertisement inside one of the bus shelters.

Some, like David Browning, see no issue.

"I wouldn't really have a concern about it being that it's a public space," he said.

"I guess the government getting more information and companies using it can be problematic in its own right but it's not something that concerns me."

Sahar Badiei said she believes people should have a right to know when they are being filmed, if that were the case.

"There should be a reason or purpose of doing that," she said. 

B.C.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy says the public does have a right to have some control over what is collected about them and how it is used, whether by the private or public sector.

The company says it is taking the additional step of covering the lenses this weekend. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

McEvoy said he is aware of the lenses and is "actively looking into it" although he is still gathering details. 

Private companies, for the most part, need the consent of the public to gather their information. This can mean even signs in an area letting people know filming is happening, he said.

Public entities must prove collecting people's images or information is necessary for specific reasons.

"We don't want to live in a surveillance society where there's a camera on every corner tracking every move that people make," McEvoy said.

"The law is really designed to ensure that video surveillance for example is only employed where it's necessary to do so."

Sahar Badiei said she believes people should have a right to know if they are being filmed. (CBC)

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