Frequently Asked Questions

From CAMS Ottawa's open letter to Mayor Watson

1. What is the evidence on CCTV?

a. A report examining the San Francisco Community Camera Safety Program found that violent crime did not decrease with the use of surveillance cameras in public places. The pattern of homicides in particular was consistent with random variation, rather than a decrease. The only significant decrease in crime was a 30 per cent drop in property crimes (including purse snatching and pickpocketing) near the cameras. The study found no evidence of any reduction in drug offences, vandalism, or other street-level crime. The relatively poor quality of the video captured frustrated investigators; at best the cameras acted as “silent witnesses” that facilitated the reconstruction of sequences of events or placing witnesses at a scene, but it was often difficult to identify suspects because of the cameras’ placement, low resolution, and poor night vision.

b. A UK study on the use of CCTV cameras to conduct surveillance of public areas (where the cameras were scrutinized and could be directed by operators) found that the CCTV operators would use the cameras to disproportionately target young men from racial minorities or subcultural affiliations in a “clearly discriminatory” manner. Women, meanwhile, were largely scrutinized for voyeuristic purposes by the operators, rather than for any reason connected to the prevention or detection of crime. The cumulative effect was to undermine any promise that the CCTV cameras would impartially watch over the whole population and target only those who were acting “suspiciously,” or that operators would be bound by strict guidelines.

c. In 2008, a systematic review of 44 studies found that “CCTV has a modest impact on crime. Effectiveness varies across settings. Surveillance is more effective at preventing crime in car parks, and less effective in city and town centers, public housing, and public transport. … CCTV surveillance does not have an effect on levels of violent crime.” The studies were mostly from the UK, but some also from the USA, Canada, Norway and Sweden.

2. What are the privacy concerns?

The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario determined that surveillance cameras typically engage the requirements of provincial and municipal privacy legislation. This is because they capture identifiable images of persons and thus record personal information within the meaning of Ontario’s privacy legislation. The City of Ottawa must be very clear on the powers, limitations, and responsibilities that result.

The capture of personal information through the use of surveillance cameras will be permitted only if doing so is expressly authorized by statute, or if done for the purposes of law enforcement (meaning done by an institution with a law enforcement mandate and to further law enforcement purposes), or if necessary to the proper administration of a lawfully authorized activity (meaning more than merely helpful to that activity, but that there is a real, substantial and pressing need for video surveillance, that less intrusive means have been considered and found to be substantially less effective, and that the benefits of the surveillance substantially outweigh the reduction in privacy inherent in its use).

Individuals must generally be given effective notice that they will be subject to video surveillance, which will be challenging to implement given the spaces involved. What assurances can the City of Ottawa offer that their privacy will be properly safeguarded? Individuals will likely be very concerned about the risk of misuse of their personal information, and the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario cautions that entities conducting video surveillance must develop and implement appropriate policies to protect information from improper or inadvertent access or disclosure, and to ensure that information is only disclosed according to the applicable privacy legislation. Protecting individual privacy requires the City of Ottawa to develop and implement appropriate safeguards concerning the retention, storage, and safeguarding of footage.

The vast majority of persons captured by video surveillance are law-abiding individuals going about their business. They have a reasonable expectation of privacy and anonymity against mass surveillance notwithstanding the fact that they may be in a public space. The knowledge that everything one does (and says) may be recorded can significantly chill the exercise of constitutionally-protected rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of association. Before any decision is made concerning the use of surveillance cameras, the Information and Privacy Commissioner strongly recommends that public consultations be held to determine the program’s necessity and impact. In particular, those who reasonably may be affected by the video surveillance should be identified and consulted by the City of Ottawa. This necessarily means going beyond seeking the approval of business groups and proprietors, and requires meaningful engagement with the community.

3. How does CCTV impact specific groups?

CCTV cameras are more than just unbiased observation tools of surveillance; they can manifest as a further form of discrimination. Whether passively recording or manipulated by an operator, these surveillance tools can store information about people and construct digital identities about who they are without a full understanding of their context. They create conditions to observe from a distance without any actual face-to-face interactions; the information that CCTV cameras collect is not the whole picture and yet is still used to feed the suspicions of law enforcement about pre-existing ideas of who the "delinquents" are. They can store this information and use it out of context to build cases about individuals and pathologize their behaviour, in a way that fits their mandate and narrative about who is a "risk" in society.

Video surveillance and CCTV work as a tool for observing, recording and categorizing people, leading to sanctions of their behaviour and limits to their freedom. The proposed location of the CCTV cameras will targeting the people living in the downtown core of Ottawa. Many of them already suffer from precarious housing, addiction and lack of access to resources, and it will only serve to alienate, dehumanize and marginalize these people even further.

CCTV cameras, like any other data collection tool, pose the problem of information overload, meaning that there will be more data than can be processed by any operator or observer. This results in the need for the operators and law enforcement to "select" what type of behaviour and people they will focus on and target. When there is a lack of face-to-face interaction, there is also a lack of understanding of people's backgrounds and context. What are the thresholds and criteria for determining who to track? What behaviour will be dismissed as innocuous, and what behaviour will be the subject of increased scrutiny? Our concern is that the criteria in which the observers will be making their selections will not be neutral but, as has been demonstrated in empirical research, will focus on variables like age, race and gender. Those variables are likely going to come from the problematic "risk-assessment" point of view that is prevalent in our entire system of "corrections." All of the factors that should be addressed as "needs" of the community that we need to be tackling are then flipped and presented as risks in need of observation and reactive response that usually results in limiting the freedom of individuals.

4. What are the costs of CCTV?

CCTV systems entail significant startup costs as well as high ongoing costs in order to keep the system up and running. A basic system would cost, at a minimum, tens of thousands of dollars simply to purchase cameras, servers, computers and other associated equipment. Added to this bill are the ongoing costs for system monitoring: for individuals to review the footage and provide analysis, which, depending on how the system might operate, would easily stretch into the hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. On top of this, there are costs associated with recording and storing video footage, repair and replacement of broken or vandalized equipment and regular maintenance (including winter maintenance). None of these costs are insignificant, especially when considered against the demand for other proven methods of crime prevention - from early intervention and youth opportunity programs to education, rehabilitation programs and supportive programs to help those who come into conflict with the law. Many of the local organizations running such programs have requested - on many occasions - funding increases from the City of Ottawa, yet funds are not made available for these proven, tested and evidence-based programs. Any feasibility study of crime prevention should, at a minimum, compare costs and benefits of these programs versus CCTV before spending scarce public dollars on one option.

5. What else can be done?

The call for a “feasibility study” comes across as a foregone conclusion to pave the way for CCTV surveillance. The aim of CCTV appears to be to bolster the public perception of safety, and to foster a sense that the city is doing something about the problem of violence, without recognizing how little CCTV would help -- even when it comes to providing useful evidence to police. This does little to allay the concerns of those who wish to discuss measures to address the root causes and challenges in the ByWard Market and work toward human-centered solutions. The feasibility study should also include a significant component of public consultation and a true consideration of public input. We invite you to collaborate with community groups, researchers, and advocates concerning the problems with CCTV surveillance and effective strategies for addressing crime.