Vancouver’s closed-circuit TV public-surveillance system guidelines contradict privacy pledge
The City of Vancouver got a $400,000 provincial government grant to expand its closed-circuit television (CCTV) public-surveillance system—then ignored the commitments it made to protect citizens’ privacy. At least, that’s what’s suggested by two seemingly contradictory documents recently obtained by the Georgia Straight through freedom-of-information requests: the city’s CCTV privacy-impact assessment and its CCTV policy guidelines.
Under privacy law, privacy-impact assessments (PIAs) are supposed to describe how an agency will handle personally identifiable information it collects, like images of people on public streets. The city’s PIA, written in 2009, was reviewed by the B.C. privacy commissioner, as is commonly done with PIAs to help ensure programs are reasonable and lawful. That PIA states that there “will be no recording or storage of images” during any CCTV public surveillance. The video cameras will only operate and be monitored in real time, the PIA says, to facilitate real-time responses to emergency situations “without collection and/or storage of images”. Therefore, the PIA explains, Vancouver’s CCTV system presents no threat to people’s privacy because “no personal information is being collected, used or disclosed.”
However, the city’s active CCTV policy guidelines state: “The information collected by the CCTV system will be recorded…[and] will be retained for 30 days” for undisclosed reasons.
Meanwhile, in its 2009 PIA, the city also commits to hosting “broad and inclusive” consultations including “as wide and disparate a range of stakeholders as possible” with a clearly defined “engagement process” and “deliverables”. This section pointedly adds: “Amongst stakeholders who will be invited to participate will be the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.” (BCCLA critics of CCTV have long called for exactly such public consultations.) Perhaps tellingly, the PIA concludes with four spots for signatures from senior city and B.C. government representatives—all blank.
“I’m not sure what that means,” BCCLA policy director Micheal Vonn said during a phone interview after reviewing the documents and the missing signatures. “What it does seem to indicate is that there’s a certain cavalierness about following up on this.…It doesn’t look like the process was followed.” And as for the community consultations involving the BCCLA, she commented: “I have to say, I have no record of that consultation. Although I don’t know what they mean by ‘consultation’.”
Asked about the contradictions in the documents and the unmet commitments in the PIA, Kevin Wallinger, Vancouver’s director of emergency management, gave an interesting explanation. Even though the Straight specifically requested the city’s CCTV privacy-impact assessment, Wallinger said that what was obtained is not actually the CCTV privacy-impact assessment. At least, not anymore.
“The privacy-impact assessment was developed and put together as part of a grant application [in early 2009] with the [former] Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General,” Wallinger said. “And the receipt of that [$400,000] funding was contingent on having the PIA in place.” Wallinger explained that the grant was for a project that primarily consisted of the construction of the CCTV control room as part of security enhancements for the 2010 Winter Olympics. “That [PIA] was done specifically for the intended use during the Olympics, which have come and gone,” Wallinger said. After the Olympic surveillance project ended, Wallinger said, the PIA was no longer in force and the city reverted to its normal practices based on the second document the Straight obtained, the city’s CCTV policy guidelines, which were written in 2005.
And the lack of signatures on the PIA? “Either an oversight in documentation or whatever,” Wallinger said. “But it was done; it wasn’t signed, and we still received the grant funding.”
There’s only one problem with this explanation. In Wallinger’s own 2009 report on the matter to city council, in which he recommended accepting that grant money, he only mentioned the Olympics in passing. Instead, he made it clear the main intent of the grant was actually to help create a long-term CCTV solution for Vancouver. The grant project, Wallinger wrote, would construct a control room to support “rapidly deployable temporary monitoring capabilities at large public events or in response to hazards, emergencies, and other unforeseen eventualities” and help the city “in the long term address its disaster recovery and business resumption needs”. In the three-page PIA itself, these same, long-term intentions are reiterated, and the Olympics are never mentioned.
Similarly, the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General made no mention of the Olympics when it issued a news release about the grant, saying the Vancouver CCTV expansion would help “reduce violent and nuisance crimes” in “high-crime locations and in special-event situations”.
So, apparently, the PIA should still be valid. And the city has been ignoring the commitments it made to the provincial government to hold public consultations on CCTV and to neither record nor retain CCTV data.
The Straight made repeated attempts, without success, to obtain an interview with B.C. Minister of Justice and Attorney General Shirley Bond in order to investigate these failings. Ministry spokesperson Amy Lapsley finally sent the Straight the following statement, allegedly from Bond: “I have only just become informed of this issue and want to thank you for bringing it to my attention.…I have directed ministry staff to look into this matter and to work with the City of Vancouver to ensure that all terms of the grant are in fact met.”
However, getting the city’s policy document more in sync with its PIA document won’t likely improve much, in any case. During discussions with Wallinger, it became clear that on many key privacy-protection issues, the city is also increasingly ignoring its own six-page policy document.
The “Closed Circuit Television Systems Setup and Monitoring Policy” authorizes, for example, strictly “short-term” installations of cameras for specific events. However, Wallinger admitted that many cameras remained in place for months in downtown areas last year. “During the [June Stanley Cup] final series, we actually installed the cameras,” he said. “We actually left some of the cameras up through the Canada Day celebration, and also the Celebration of Light fireworks at the end of July.”
And who’s allowed to access that stored video data? Wallinger replied: “I think our procedures are pretty specific in that it’s the Vancouver Police Department or other city departments.” Since 2010, Wallinger said, the VPD has accessed the CCTV videos “30 or 40 times” via a request form. “We’ve got a process in place. Within that 30-day period, they need to give us a file number and the specific incident.” Yet the city’s CCTV policy guidelines don’t actually describe any processes or forms for authorizing such routine access to stored video footage by police or city departments without search warrants or court orders.
And where it’s not being ignored, the policy is so vague as to seemingly allow unlimited uses of CCTV. For example, one of the “permissible uses” for CCTV surveillance is “planning”, which includes purposes as varied as “traffic management”, “property development”, “related purposes”, and “city planning”. Another permissible use is “law enforcement”, which includes everything from “investigations that lead or could lead to a penalty or sanction” to the all-encompassing “criminal intelligence”. One section describes how rationales for specific deployments of CCTV should be proposed yet identifies only two evaluation criteria: the proposal must not be illegal, and it should be “a cost-effective and reasonable use of the CCTV systems and of staff resources”.