British Columbia

Vancouver city council to consider use of CCTV to prevent violent crime

Vancouver city council is considering the use of closed circuit television in an effort to deter violent crime in the city.

Advocates worry city-wide CCTV implementation will infringe on privacy

Advocates worry the use of closed circuit cameras could infringe on residents' privacy. (CBC)

Vancouver city council is set to consider the use of closed circuit television, or CCTV, in an effort to deter violent crime in the city during a meeting on Wednesday.

Council agreed Tuesday to push back voting and speaking on the motion to their standing committee meeting on Wednesday. Voting was originally supposed to happen Tuesday night.

Councillor Melissa De Genova, who introduced the motion, said she hopes it will be another tool to keep the city safe by both preventing crime and creating evidence for police investigations. 

"I'm hearing people aren't feeling safe because of the drastic increase in violent crime we've seen over the years," she told On the Coast host Gloria Macarenko.

According to the Vancouver Police Department's latest GeoDash crime statistics, crime in general is up 13 per cent compared to last year. But offences against a person, such as violent crimes, are down 22.7 per cent over the past eight weeks compared to 2021. Mischief and theft appear to bring the overall average up. 

Advocates are concerned the motion to look into CCTV for crime prevention, although well-meaning, will infringe on residents' privacy, and won't have the desired outcome. 

Open Media digital rights campaigner Bryan Short described the motion as "out of step with reality" in Vancouver. 

"It proposes that we can sacrifice or trade a right to privacy or a reasonable expectation of privacy in our public spaces for public safety," he told The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn Tuesday morning. 

Daniella Barreto, a digital activism coordinator with Amnesty International, says there's an assumption that when cameras are present, people are inherently safer. 

"Surveillance doesn't affect everybody equally, and it disproportionately affects marginalized groups, particularly Black people, particularly Indigenous people," she said.

De Genova says CCTV is used during large celebrations in Vancouver, so if it's used a few days a year, it could be used every day.

"The police can be more efficient, and it's a more efficient use of their time, instead of canvassing private businesses if they do have cameras, to instead be able to capture [their own] footage," she said.

The motion suggests other large cities, such as London and New York City, that use CCTV cameras for surveillance.

"You would assume, if the idea that more surveillance equals more safety, that London would be one of the safest places in the world. But it's not," Barretto said. 

Cameras are already present in many private businesses, and the motion claims CCTV has assisted in solving crimes — though it isn't clear whether that refers to violent or petty crime.

The motion also points out that people are constantly using their personal devices to take video in public spaces, and there are no laws against this. 

"It compares the use of me in taking my personal cell phone out and taking a video of my kid riding her bike in the park to the state sponsoring a mass network of surveillance cameras in public spaces," Short says.

"The two things are not equal." 

Facial recognition

Although the motion doesn't specifically direct council or staff to consider facial recognition technology, it points out that many cities have taken CCTV one step further to utilize that kind of software to find criminals, "safeguard vulnerable people" and "protect people from harm."

De Genova made it clear she is not suggesting facial recognition. But the mention of facial recognition is cause for concern for Short and Barreto. 

"Facial recognition technology is notoriously bad at identifying Black people and other marginalized people," Barreto said. 

"When you add that into the fact that police routinely misidentify people, racial profiling, systemic racism is present in policing, and gathering this mass amount of video footage of the public is only going to serve to amplify these pre-existing circumstances."

If council votes in favour of the motion, staff will be asked to come up with a report and recommendations on the use of CCTV to be presented later this year. That would include working with VPD and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to conduct a Privacy Impact Assessment.

Are more CCTV cameras going to prevent violent crime in the City of Vancouver? What could be some other solutions? We’re speaking with two digital advocates today about the use of facial recognition to deter crime in the City of Vancouver.

With files from The Early Edition and On The Coast

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