Police in Canada look into tech that accesses your home security cameras
Police in U.S. say technology is helpful but researchers say Canada should hesitate before using it
An officer looks at a screen showing a network of security cameras from people's homes and businesses around the city, which can be watched all at once, in real-time. They access areas from which emergency calls come in, or scenes of crimes.
That's how policing is done in some U.S. cities — and police forces in Canadian cities are looking into it.
"We foresee a progression for the Hamilton police to incorporate this technology in the future, however there are currently no timelines for implementing this," Jackie Penman, a spokesperson for the police service in Hamilton, told CBC News.
Hamilton police was one of over a dozen Canadian police agencies in attendance at the Real Time Crime Center Operations and Tech Integration conference in Mississauga, Ont., in early October, CBC Hamilton has learned.
Some of those in attendance saw a demo of Fusus — a paid service that makes it easier for police to access privately owned security camera footage from residents and businesses.
It's a technology becoming more common across the U.S., with police saying it makes the job easier.
But it has policing researchers worried about whether it's surveillance overkill — and privacy commissioners say they want to be consulted if officers do use Fusus, given it would allow police to watch citizens without a warrant.
"This is the perfect time for the public and law enforcement to think about what policing practices we want in Canada," said Natasha Tusikov, a former analyst with Criminal Intelligence Service Canada and researcher with the RCMP who is now an associate criminology professor at York University.
How does the technology work?
Lt. Brendon Barth has worked with Atlanta Police Department (APD) — which uses Fusus — for over two decades.
"It is greatly enhancing our ability to fight and prevent crime and keep people safe and that is the goal," Barth said in an interview with CBC Hamilton.
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Fusus contacts people asking if they want to sign up their cameras, he said. People can also sign up on their own.
Residents can give police real-time access to their cameras or let APD know they are willing to review and share video if needed.
Barth said APD has live access to over 16,000 integrated cameras. There are 18,500 cameras owned by people willing to share video.
Barth said the technology allows officers responding to 911 calls to get more details as they head to the scene and simplifies investigating crimes after the fact.
Officers in the field can also look at the real-time cameras from their vehicles.
The cameras, Barth said, are a "time-saver" for lower-priority calls like property crimes and make it easy for police to give video to lawyers requesting footage of car crashes.
Barth said APD is putting more effort into getting cameras from businesses open at night and places with more calls for service like gas stations. But he said APD also doesn't promise that officers will monitor their cameras at all times.
He also said police use the footage to review crimes more than they do to watch in real-time.
Barth said Fusus also includes an extra feature that can detect the sounds of gunshots, which APD piloted but isn't using because it costs too much.
Researcher says camera network is 'problematic'
Tusikov said while police may say Fusus is a big help, she thinks the technology is "problematic." She said just because it is available, doesn't mean it should be used.
She points to Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition tool Canadian police services secretly used until privacy watchdogs ordered them to stop.
Tusikov said Fusus would be a "disproportionate response" to crimes like auto theft, which has been surging in Canada, and likely wouldn't help with intimate partner violence, which has been declared an epidemic in Hamilton and other cities across the country.
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Fusus didn't respond to questions from CBC Hamilton.
In a YouTube video, Fusus said its product can help police when responding to school shootings, but Tusikov said those are rare in Canada.
She also worries if some people in a neighbourhood integrate their camera, others may feel pressured to do the same.
WATCH: What problem will this solve, researcher asks
Christopher Schneider, a sociology professor at Manitoba's Brandon University who researches policing and technology, also has concerns about the consequences of using the technology.
"It plays on fear of crime, fear of the unknown, which can be very easily manipulated by police, politicians and other people," he said.
"Where does the scale tip where it starts to potentially violate the rights and securities of people ... and in what ways are we able to regain control?"
Schneider worries it will lead residents to watch people in their neighbourhoods and look for those who look like they "don't belong."
He and Tusikov also say more cameras don't lead to more safety, pointing to a lack of evidence on the effectiveness of police-worn body cameras. Some groups have hoped those cameras would be used to monitor and reduce police use of force.
WATCH: Why Lt. Brendon Barth thinks the camera network isn't overkill
Barth said he doesn't think the camera network is overkill because "people are used to being on camera."
"Most people should expect most places you go there's a camera somewhere … society as a whole is used to it now," he said.
"We're just kind of like an eye in the sky. If you're not breaking any laws, you have nothing to worry about … we're not spying on anybody unless they're committing a crime."
He said people can opt out whenever they want by contacting Fusus or unplugging their core from the camera if they are integrated.
Barth noted there are oversight measures in place like the ability to conduct audits and the ability to see when officers access the network.
What Canadian police services said about using Fusus
CBC contacted Canadian police services at the Real Time Crime Center Operations and Tech Integration conference, asking if any of them use Fusus or are exploring using it or similar technology.
Police services in Calgary, Regina, Toronto and Halton said no to both questions.
Police services who said they don't use Fusus but would not say if they are exploring the use of it or similar products include:
- Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
- Ontario Provincial Police (OPP).
- Edmonton Police Service.
- Durham Regional Police Service.
- Ottawa Police Service.
- Peel Regional Police Service.
- Surrey Police Service.
- York Regional Police.
- Vancouver Police Department.
- Ville de Québec Police Service.
- Waterloo Regional Police.
McMaster University Security Services also attended the conference, although it is isn't a police service. It wouldn't say if it will explore using Fusus in the future.
CBC didn't immediately hear back from police in Cobourg, Guelph, and Windsor.
Privacy commissioners want consultation before use
Vito Pilieci, senior communications advisor for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, said in an email the RCMP hasn't engaged with the office about Fusus and said it would expect them to consult in advance and conduct a privacy impact assessment.
He said using technology like this would "need to be fully justified by a pressing and legitimate necessity" and would have to be "proportionate."
The Office of Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) said in an email it's not aware of any police services using Fusus in the province.
IPC also said police services should consult with them and conduct a privacy impact assessment before using the technology.
"We would especially encourage this given that Fusus appears to involve real-time monitoring and unmediated access to private surveillance cameras which may come with a greater risk of intrusion into the privacy of individuals," the IPC said.