Ontario privacy chief gives green light to TTC surveillance plans

Ontario's privacy commissioner says Toronto's transit system can expand its use of video cameras without worrying about violating the law but it must ensure that threats to privacy are "kept to an absolute minimum."

Ontario's privacy commissioner says Toronto's transit system can expand its use of video cameras without worrying about violating the law but it must ensure that threats to privacy are "kept to an absolute minimum."

Ann Cavoukian, in a report released Monday, said video surveillance plans by the Toronto Transit Commission do comply with Ontario's Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

But she made 13 recommendations that outline specific steps that the TTC must take to protect the privacy rights of its riders.

"Mass transit systems like the TTC, that are required to move large volumes of people, in confined spaces, on a daily basis, give rise to unique safety and security issues for the general public and operators of the system," she said.

"The challenge we thus face is to rein in, as tightly as possible, any potential for the unauthorized deployment of the system. We have attempted to do this by ensuring that strong controls are in place ..."

Cavoukian said the TTC must implement policies and procedures that put limits on the expanded system, must undertake an independent audit, and when possible, introduce technologies that would prevent unauthorized access or use of the personal information obtained.

"Where developments such as video surveillance in mass transit systems, like the TTC, can be shown to be needed for public safety, you must also ensure that threats to privacy are kept to an absolute minimum," she said.

Transit officials in Toronto have announced plans to set up 12,000 cameras across the TTC's bus, subway and streetcar system by mid-2009. The TTC has argued that the video surveillance cameras would reduce the level of crime on its system.

Cavoukian's report follows a complaint about the TTC plans filed in October 2007 by Privacy International, a human rights group based in London, England. Cavoukian has been studying the issue for four months.

According to Privacy International, all 1.5 million TTC riders would be photographed on a daily basis. It says the cameras would have audio capability that would enable TTC staff or police to view live video or hear audio from any of the security cameras.

Cavoukian recommended that the TTC reduce the amount of time it holds onto video surveillance images from a maximum of a week to a maximum of 72 hours, unless the images are needed for an investigation.

She said the TTC must also ensure its video surveillance policy provides for an annual audit of the system that is thorough and comprehensive. She said the first audit should be conducted by an independent third party.

She also recommended that the TTC take steps to evaluate what she called "privacy-enhancing" video surveillance technology developed by University of Toronto researchers Karl Martin and Kostas Plataniotis.

"In light of the growth of surveillance technologies, not to mention the proliferation of biometrics and sensoring devices, the future of privacy may well lie in ensuring that the necessary protections are built right into their design," she said.