Nova Scotia

Use of video surveillance across Nova Scotia troubles privacy commissioner

Nova Scotia's information and privacy commissioner Catherine Tully says she's concerned about the prevalence of surveillance cameras trained on public spaces.

Video surveillance found in downtown blocks of many Nova Scotia municipalities

Nova Scotia privacy commissioner Catherine Tully says video surveillance cameras trained on public spaces around Nova Scotia may be breaking privacy laws. (CBC)

If you feel like you're being watched as you exit your local library or grocery store, there's a good chance you are.

Nova Scotia's information and privacy office recently counted 98 video surveillance cameras on downtown streets of six municipalities — Halifax, Sydney, Kentville, Windsor, Digby and Yarmouth. About three quarters are owned by private businesses, the rest by government, libraries and Crown corporations, says privacy commissioner Catherine Tully.

Her office sent out a voluntary survey to the 53 cities and towns in Nova Scotia. While only about half — 25 — responded, the results showed most have video surveillance. 

"It certainly heightened my concern, mainly because not only did they have cameras, very few had privacy policies," Tully told CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton.

"Just six said they had privacy policies and none had conducted what we call a privacy impact assessment."

Cameras may be subject to privacy laws

Video cameras collect personal information and are subject to privacy laws, Tully said. The owners of the camera may be breaking the law with regards to how that personal information is used, she added.

Municipalities need to be educated on the use or misuse of that type of public surveillance, she said.

That is where a privacy assessment can help: to identify the problem, figure out why surveillance is needed and to look at other, less invasive solutions.

Signs required

Even if cameras are installed, the commissioner said the information they collect is personal and subject to privacy laws.

For example, "you must avoid training it on public spaces as much as you can and … only use the cameras during the times the problems are likely to occur," Tully said.

"You want to keep the recordings for the shortest possible time. You need to keep them in a secure place. You need to limit access to them. And you need only to use the recordings for the original purpose intended."

Video surveillance cameras are common in downtown areas in Nova Scotia municipalities, a recent survey by the province's information and privacy office found. (Thomas Gerbet/Radio-Canada)

In addition, signs need to be posted informing the public the cameras are in use before they enter the area, the reason for them and contact information if people have questions, she said.

That hardly ever happens.

"We only saw notices in 16 per cent. It was a bit like finding Waldo to find the notices. They certainly didn't give you notice in advance, you were already captured on video by the time you saw the notice," Tully said.

Privacy laws regarding surveillance cameras outdated 

But there isn't much recourse for the public when it comes to surveillance cameras.

"We have very old privacy laws in Nova Scotia. They need an update. Under municipal laws, there is no oversight [regarding cameras]," Tully said.

"You can't complain to my office about a privacy breach. Nor can we initiate an investigation to get voluntary compliance." 

The information and privacy commission is currently working on video surveillance guidelines for municipalities and an education program.

With files from Information Morning Cape Breton