City of Vancouver’s emergency-management department flouts CCTV surveillance rules
The City of Vancouver’s emergency-management department has been ignoring the city’s policies governing closed-circuit-television surveillance since those policies were created in 2005.
This became clear last May after the Georgia Straight reviewed the city’s “Closed Circuit Television Systems Setup and Monitoring Policy” and submitted freedom-of-information (FOI) requests for documents wherever the policy mandated record-keeping. Subsequently, the Straight found evidence of severe and chronic policy breaches.
The policy describes how all proposals for use of closed-circuit television (CCTV) must be provided in writing and must explain what problem the cameras are supposed to alleviate and “why other measures could not address this problem”, along with specifying what information will be collected and under what legal authority. As well, proposals must detail how the benefits of surveillance “will outweigh any privacy invasion”.
Yet since 2005, not a single such proposal has ever been documented. Meanwhile, the policy describes a formal process to evaluate those proposals. No such evaluations have ever been documented.
The policy also describes restrictions on who may access surveillance footage and under what conditions. In practice, filling out a simple request form is all that’s been required, and even that has been mostly ignored. Emergency-management director Kevin Wallinger previously told the Straight that Vancouver police had accessed the surveillance footage “30 or 40 times” since the 2010 Olympics alone. Nevertheless, the Straight’s FOI requests revealed that since 2005, only two accesses have ever been documented.
The policy further states that emergency management “will maintain a log” recording CCTV proposals and approvals as well as accesses to footage. No such log exists. Consequently, the public cannot know how often or widely surveillance cameras have been used in Vancouver or who has been obtaining the footage for what purposes.
Ironically, the policy includes a requirement to document “any reports of investigations into breaches of this policy”. No investigations have ever been done, at least none that have been noted.
In July, the Straight sent descriptions of these policy breaches to the mayor and all Vancouver councillors, with requests for comment. After a week, no one had responded. (Gregor Robertson and Andrea Reimer were away at the time.) Explanatory telephone messages were also left for councillors George Affleck, Geoff Meggs, Elizabeth Ball, and Heather Deal. After five days, none had responded. Raymond Louie directed the Straight to city staff. Adriane Carr said she had forwarded questions to city staff. “If we have a policy that absolutely requires protocol for the use of closed-circuit-TV information,” Carr said, “I want assurance that we’re following that protocol.”
After receiving the same information as the city councillors, Micheal Vonn, policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said: “Many loud promises were made at the time when we were looking at bringing these cameras in. If the gap between the practice and the policy is this large, it, of course, throws our trust in the policy-development process completely out the window.”
Vonn was disturbed by the reported disinterest from councillors. “Once you’ve raised red flags that there appears to be a problem, you would hope that the political oversight on these issues would be keen to step up.”
Vonn added that cameras are likely only a forewarning of what’s to come, from recording of street-level conversations to flying surveillance drones. “This is about more than cameras. This is about promises that are made relative to how we make these systems transparent and accountable. And if this is the temperature-taking on that, we should be very worried.”
City communications representative Wendy Stewart provided information by email that she claimed came from deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston.
“In the past, requests and approval for CCTV use were handled via email which resulted in a lack of tracking of those requests,” the email stated. However, if such request-and-approval emails actually exist, the city’s response to the Straight’s FOI requests did not return evidence of them.
“Earlier this year,” continued the email, “we took steps to significantly increase record keeping for the request and approval process, information logs and complaints about the use of CCTV.” As evidence, a detailed CCTV–use application form was attached. The email added: “A log was created for 2012 to capture information required by the policy.”
This new record-keeping was, evidently, created sometime between the city’s May 23 response to the Straight’s FOI requests and the Straight’s July questioning about the policy breaches.
Subsequently, Vonn commented: “On the basis of what you have unearthed, a response is called for.…Is there a movement afoot to bring in the monitoring that we were promised?…Again, it will only be as good as the practice that ensues.”