Stop posting videos of shoplifters, N.L. privacy commissioner says

"If the purpose is really to just identify them, why do you have to add the fact that they took a dildo or a chicken?"

Illegal to share CCTV footage, but business owners say it's best way to catch criminals

An adult store in St. John's is known for posting photos of alleged shoplifters on social media, but the privacy commissioner says the practice is against the law. (Our Pleasure/Facebook)

The alleged dildo thief of 2017 — and a man caught sticking a chicken down his pants — should be protected under a law that denies businesses the right to share footage of bad customers, Newfoundland and Labrador's privacy commissioner warns.

The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, also known as PIPEDA, is a federal data privacy law that prohibits any business from releasing surveillance videos on social media or even posting still images inside the shop itself.

That law sets out restrictions for businesses on "disclosure without consent," meaning that — even if the tape is captured on private property, and shared in order to identify a thief — anybody caught on it must give permission before it's publicly circulated, commissioner Donovan Molloy told CBC News Thursday.

"The people in these pictures have not been found guilty of anything. They're believed to have committed the offence," Molloy said.

He stressed repeatedly that owners should leave the sleuthing to police, who weigh the benefits and harms of releasing footage for the purposes of identifying suspects.

"It's intended to embarrass, in many cases. You're dealing sometimes with individuals who have mental health and other issues," Molloy said.

"Beyond shaming the person, you're potentially shaming their children, their extended family. It's not as cut and dry as some people portray it."

No fines — yet 

Molloy said the federal commissioner received a complaint in 2015 about photos of alleged shoplifters in an unidentified department store.

The store was found to be in violation of the act, setting a precedent for all other businesses in the country.

There aren't any penalties associated with breaking this law, he said. Neither the province nor the federal commissioner has the power to issue fines, unlike in the United Kingdom, where penalties can get hefty, he said.

It's a power the federal commissioner is advocating for, he said.

N.L.'s privacy commissioner Donovan Molloy says images of bad customers shouldn't be publicly shared, even though it might be a business's only hope of catching shoplifters. (CBC)

Molloy suspects there could be reasons besides inventory protection that stores wield the power of the internet when going after antisocial shoppers.

"If the purpose is to identify, why do you need to add what they stole?" he asked, pointing out what he says is an unnecessary penchant for sharing "salacious" details.

"For example, putting something in your pants — a chicken. A dildo."

There are other considerations, he said, and asked businesses to rethink whether it's necessary to circulate surveillance videos online.

Molloy expressed concern for the well-being of people who become targets for public shaming online. (Our Pleasure/Facebook)

Media outlets, including CBC News, regularly report on businesses who share shoplifting or robbery footage, but Molloy expressed concern about the news value of such stories.

"What's the interest? I think media outlets should consider the newsworthiness of the story compared to its potential to negatively impact," he said.

When it comes to identifying armed robbers, showing footage of suspects could keep people safe, he said. But if it's just "serving to give people a chuckle" at the expense of someone's reputation, it should be questioned.

Aside from the ethical questions, Molloy added, "the law says you're not allowed to do it."

'Irrefutable proof'

A St. John's sex toy chain has a reputation for calling out alleged shoplifters on social media.

According to Water Street location manager Alica Coultas, the intention isn't to shame anyone — it's to recover the lost product.

"It's not our fault that these people have chosen to shoplift from a more intimate store," she said. "It's their choice that they did."

Coultas said the store's Facebook posts could "teeter into the realm of public shaming" when the community as a whole "takes it too far."

The manager of a St. John's adult store, Alica Coultas, says posting images of shoplifters online is an effective way to find the perpetrator and press charges. (CBC)

But that's not something the business itself can control, she said.

Our Pleasure wasn't aware that posting images from their security cameras violated any law. But to avoid lawsuits, Coultas said the store only posts footage when they have "irrefutable proof" that a theft occurred.

"We know when there's proof and when there isn't," she said. "Proof is clear video evidence of them putting it in their bag … and then leaving the store without putting it back."

Coultas said social media has led to positively identifying 90 per cent of the people they've caught stealing on camera.

Police can't invest time into smaller thefts, she said, "so putting it up on social media is a really effective way for us to find their identity, which helps with any criminal proceedings."

From there, the store presses charges, she said.

"Our goal is not to public shame … in reality it's us using what is available to us to try to get the perpetrator's name. They have committed a crime. Small businesses suffer a lot from the loss of product." 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Carolyn Stokes and Gavin Simms