British Columbia

Privacy watchdog questions legality of surveillance cameras in Kelowna, B.C.

B.C.'s privacy commissioner is raising concerns about plans to implement surveillance cameras in a number of B.C. communities, including Kelowna, B.C.

'We don't know that this operation is actually legal,' says acting information and privacy commissioner

The City of Kelowna said a pilot program of monitored surveillance cameras resulted in the intervention of more than 400 incidents in July and August. (CBC)

B.C.'s acting privacy commissioner is raising concerns about a proposal for monitored surveillance cameras in Kelowna, B.C.

In December, Kelowna city council approved a plan to spend $30,000 to begin around-the-clock monitoring of roughly 300 closed-circuit cameras.

"We're not sure under what law they would have authority as a city to conduct constant surveillance," Drew McArthur, B.C.'s acting information and privacy commissioner, told Chris Walker, host of CBC Daybreak South. "We don't know that this operation is actually legal." 

In a memo released Wednesday concerning the use of video surveillance by local governments, McArthur wrote that local governments are planning to implement video surveillance in public spaces "on a scale unprecedented in B.C."

He singled out the cities of Kelowna, Terrace and Richmond, which all have surveillance plans or proposals in place.

"Whether any of these proposals are lawful ... remains to be seen," writes McArthur.

In the case of Kelowna, the city implemented a two-month trial monitoring dozens of surveillance cameras in local parkades in July and August 2017 — a program it hopes to expand by this summer.

City staff say, as a result of the cameras, security guards or paramedics intervened in over 400 incidents ranging from vandalism, to break-and-enters and drug use.

But McArthur said constant monitoring often does not deter crime and is a privacy violation.

'Privacy invasive action'

"Surveillance is typically a police matter that is covered by the criminal code and even police can't conduct constant surveillance without a specific investigation being undertaken," McArthur said.

"Kelowna knows it's their responsibility to conduct a privacy impact assessment when they're undertaking privacy invasive actions and we see this definitely as a privacy invasive action."

The city monitored dozens of cameras at local parkades during a two-month pilot project in the summer of 2017. (Google Maps)

Lance Kayfish, risk manager for the City of Kelowna, said staff are still developing details of the proposal. He said the proposal must still be vetted by the office of the privacy commissioner.

But he says a privacy impact study is done for every camera system.

"We have very strict controls on who can view a camera and even stricter controls on who can basically press that rewind button," said Kayfish.

"Unless there's some sort of criminal incident or crime reported ... all of that video is automatically deleted after a very short period."

Based on the two-month trial, Kayfish said he believes monitored cameras could improve downtown security.

"Monitoring can result in early intervention to suspicious activities and deter activities and unwanted behaviours from continuing," he said.

The proposal is still being assessed, but 24/7 monitoring could be in place by the summer.

With files from CBC's Daybreak South and Chris Walker

About the Author

Jaimie Kehler is a web writer, producer and broadcaster based in Kelowna, B.C. She has also worked for CBC News in Toronto and Ottawa. To contact her with a story, email