British Columbia

Vancouver police face privacy lawsuit over mass surveillance units in neighbourhoods

A Vancouver woman is suing the city's police department for breaching her privacy with the use of mass surveillance units in busy public locations.

Claimant questions effectiveness of technology she says has forced her to avoid public spaces

Keigh Papenbrock-Ryan is suing the Vancouver Police Department over the deployment of mass surveillance units that she claims are invading her privacy. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

A Vancouver woman is suing the city's police department for breaching her privacy with the use of mass surveillance units in busy public locations.

In a notice of civil claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court last week, Keigh Papenbrock-Ryan says she objects to being surveilled in her Chinatown neighbourhood and has been forced to change her routines to avoid the scrutiny of VPD cameras.

The 31-year-old consultant is suing both the department and Chief Adam Palmer. In addition to damages, she is also seeking an injunction to prevent police from deploying the units without authorization from the court.

"It just seems odd that my movements would be filmed and surveilled," Papenbrock-Ryan told the CBC.

"I should be able to walk down the street without being watched."

'My privacy has been violated'

The surveillance units described in the lawsuit are housed in trailers that can be mounted in various neighbourhoods around the city.

According to the claim, each trailer contains a collapsible column with four remotely controlled cameras attached. When the column is extended, the cameras reach a height of nearly 10 metres.

According to the lawsuit, the surveillance units have four cameras which violate the privacy rights of people whose images are caught indiscriminately. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Papenbrock-Ryan lives in Chinatown, one of three locations where she claims the police have deployed the units. She says she hasn't committed any crimes, but feels like she's under constant observation.

"My privacy has been violated," she says. "I have been avoiding that general area, which has affected my life and other people's lives."

In 2016, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association confirmed that the department used a controversial Stingray surveillance device almost a decade earlier. 

The technology in that case raised flags with privacy advocates who claimed that it intercepted cellphone communications indiscriminately, capturing the data of every user within range.

At the time, the police said it had used the Stingray device in 2007 with "legitimate, appropriate and proper" authorization.

Part of a move to defund police

Papenbrock-Ryan claims the mass surveillance units integrate video recording with heat-detecting infra-red technology and a low-intensity laser "that allows the user to see through walls, inside buildings or vehicles or under clothing."

The lawsuit says data captured by the mass surveillance units can be used by police in conjunction with technology that recognizes both faces and licence plates as well as data mining and analysis programs.

Papenbrock-Ryan says she supports current calls to defund police in the wake of mass protest in Canada and the United States sparked by the death of George Floyd last month in Minneapolis, Minn., and the images of violence deployed against peaceful protestors.

"I view this trailer and certain other things that the police use like armoured cars and that kind of thing — the militarization of police — to be a very punitive way of looking at how to make things better in society," she said.

A Chinatown resident is suing the Vancouver police department over the use of mass surveillance units like the one seen here outside the Chinese Cultural Centre. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"We need to make sure that there are laws in place that protect us from things like this happening, where we can just be randomly surveilled."

Police have yet to respond to the lawsuit and while they would not comment on it, a VPD media spokesperson said the units are intended as a deterrent and the footage is not retained.

The department says it deployed a trailer in Chinatown recently because of a rise in property crime and anti-Asian hate incidents. Police say the cameras do not record audio or have infrared capabilities and cannot see through walls.

The lawsuit claims there is no law or regulation authorizing the mass surveillance units and that the information they gather is in breach of sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantee the right to privacy.

B.C.'s Privacy Act provides exemptions for privacy violations for police officers engaged in investigations, but the lawsuit claims the VPD can't rely on those exemptions because the surveillance units aren't being used to target a specific crime.

The claim also says the units have not decreased or deterred crime in Vancouver or assisted in solving any crimes or securing any prosecutions, despite having been in operation for six years.

Papenbrock-Ryan says she hasn't quantified the amount of the damages she is seeking.

None of the claims have been proven in court.

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now