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  • In Victoria, no one is watching the watchers

    Barbara Julian

    Can the rise of surveillance in our culture and city coexist with an authentic right to privacy?




    WE ARE UNDER SURVEILLANCE EVERYWHERE: malls, offices, hospitals, buses, airports and streets. Ubiquitous CCTV cameras break down barriers between private and public life and erode not only privacy but independent thinking. Surveillance is a herding technique which builds group-think, as psychologist Bruno Bettelheim discovered in Nazi prisons.

    To spend a day unseen is becoming a luxury rather than a choice. How did we let a fundamental freedom like privacy slide away? Privacy laws in Canada are weak. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner administers the federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), and in BC, privacy comes under the Personal Information Protection Act. Privacy commissioners, however, merely suggest limits to surveillance, their Guidelines stating that “Cameras that are turned on for limited periods…are preferable to ‘always on’ surveillance. Cameras should be positioned to reduce capturing images of individuals who are not being targeted.” This is hardly a robust defense of Canadians’ right to privacy.

    Police, of course, think their job easier when surveillance is ubiquitous (witness the way criminals are tracked in reality and in crime dramas). And an aggressive home-security industry with products to sell has convinced many homeowners that without security cameras surrounding their houses, they are in danger.

    Yet concerned organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union argue “the expense of an extensive video surveillance system such as Britain’s—which sucks up approximately 20 percent of that nation’s criminal justice budget—far exceeds the limited benefits.” (The British Security Industry Authority estimated in 2013 that there is close to one CCTV camera in the UK for every 11 people, or over five million cameras in total.)

    The CRD operates about 75 CCTV cameras, most in watershed areas, recreation centres, and the Hartland Landfill. The CRD governs its own use of surveillance, for which a Privacy Impact Assessment is prepared, but it doesn’t monitor private or business cameras. “If someone who lives in the CRD wanted to put in a surveillance system on their personal property, that is up to them and we do not track or monitor it,” said Kristen Morley, general manager of Corporate Services at the CRD. Each municipality creates its own policy, but when asked, the municipalities can’t say where cameras are located within their boundaries.

    The City of Victoria doesn’t issue licenses for or keep statistics on cameras, but according to its Information Access and Privacy Analyst, Rob Gordon, “these do collect personal information,” and therefore “must comply with [BC’s] Personal Information Protection Act, and…the [federal] Freedom of Information and Protection Act.” These laws do little to keep those who don’t want to be seen from being seen.

    Picture yourself setting forth for a walk. You’re enjoying time off and a chance to be alone—but are you alone? How many devices are recording every window you pause in front of, every item you buy or cafe you visit? For how long will this movie you never wanted made of your life be in circulation? Is “having a day to yourself” but a quaint notion from the past? You are not being paranoid if this bothers you. In some cultures, people thought that to take someone’s picture was to steal their soul. It may not involve the soul, but the snatched snap does feel like a form of theft, or rape (from the Latin rapere, to snatch).

    Or picture yourself enjoying an intimate restaurant dinner for two. Sitting tête-à-tête, you happen to look up, and there’s that black globular lens on the wall: a third presence sits a mere six feet away.

    Online surveillance is, of course, equally pervasive. Our banking records, buying habits, memberships, social media contacts, and geographical movements are all harvested by government and corporate watchers. With the advent of “smart cities,” there are ever fewer places to hide—or merely enjoy some anonymity. Smart cities are networks of electronic sensors providing permanent surveillance; in exchange, residents are promised instant connectivity, autonomous vehicles, home/work meshing, and alternative energy sources. The “internet of things” extends this connectivity into the home, as well as around it: our own appliances are spying on us. Promoters advertise these gifts of technology as if Santa Claus had come to town. The downside is that “he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake.”

    Waterfront Toronto is developing a “smart city” using satellites in partnership with Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google-Alphabet. Toronto entered into this partnership without participation by elected councillors, and observers feel that taxpayers haven’t had sufficient involvement in the enterprise.

    So-called smart cities promote the use of bluetooth beacons in stores, hotels and other public places. Beacons contain tiny hidden sensors that track customers through apps on their phones which send information to a server showing where customers linger while shopping. You get promotional messages for nearby products as you move through the aisles. You don’t need to download these apps, for “location-marketing” firms sell the codes to smartphone software developers, and Google and Apple slip them unannounced into the apps you choose to download.

    If that’s not Orwellian enough, consider that the owners of beacon systems use behaviour and probability studies to create “mindset targeting techniques” that predict what advertising you’ll be susceptible to. Alexis Morris of Ontario College of Art and Design University explains that this technology is designed to “understand…how we’re feeling.” A normal person would be feeling stalked, but it gets creepier: Morris describes smart cities that offer “mixed reality,” where the physical world is “braided through with digital information” and “we could have a virtual object that jumps out of a physical object…like an avatar…”

    Or a spy. Is the smart city starting to resemble an open prison? It seems it’s not only wild foxes who are wearing location collars. So far, no store in the CRD reports the use of bluetooth beacon surveillance. But it’s coming.

    The smartphone is addictive, and the dangers of being addicted to a tool of surveillance are obvious. The next version (5G) will record our whereabouts at any given moment, but telecommunications marketers lure us with convenience and our need to belong. For these we have forfeited privacy and anonymity.

    The BC Civil Liberties Association notes that video-spying and over-policing have grown in tandem, as in the use of highway cameras and the aggressive roadside procedures that go with them. Police patrol cars have long used cameras with licence plate recognition technology, and now police officers are beginning to wear body cameras suited to facial-recognition software. VicPD installed CCTV cameras at Car Free Day and Symphony Splash. And as we learned recently through the BC Civil Liberties Association, CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) was willing to spy on environmental organizations like Sierra Club and Dogwood BC.

    Increasingly, CCTV cameras utilize facial-recognition software, which the British privacy defender Big Brother Watch calls an “authoritarian surveillance tool.” It makes covert biometric checks of people attending a festival or protest rally, matching faces with images on police databases. A recent Washington Post editorial entitled “The Facial-recognition Future We Feared Is Here,” noted that both FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had asked states to run facial-recognition searches on their driver’s license databases; the editorial had urged Congress to “pass a law limiting the use of this powerful tool to when it is warranted and necessary.”

    Of course, it doesn’t help that many of us are complicit, not only in being watched, but in being watchers. Watching others is packaged as entertainment: we are invited, through reality TV and Facebook, to perceive invasion of privacy as a spectator sport.

    No group like Big Brother Watch has emerged yet locally to fight for freedom from surveillance-creep. No one has called for camera-free zones like activists once did for smoking-free zones, yet surveillance, too, is known to cause health problems. “Researchers have found that as surveillance increases, so does anxiety, leading in turn to high blood pressure, obesity and respiratory and gastrointestinal problems,” according to the health blog Good Therapy. A study of workplace video monitoring in the island nation of Mauritius concluded that “surveillance…is used as a basis for power. To gain power over employees, companies deny individuals an unobserved space; not allowing an individual to have the necessary unobserved space is a lack of respect.” For “employees” we might substitute “residents” and ask where in the CRD we can guarantee we remain respectfully unobserved.

    Citizens themselves could pinpoint locations of cameras in their neighbourhoods and create maps for those who wish to avoid them, but avoidance may be all but impossible. As they’ve multiplied, we’ve become used to them, frog-in-boiling-water style. A “learned helplessness” has kicked in, which happens when someone is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus which cannot be escaped.

    Surveillance grows with population growth. People living in small towns can only hope they will stay small enough not to get too “smart.” Maybe really private people will withdraw into non-smart countryside—hiding in a fairy-tale cottage in the woods perhaps? Once the privilege of the commoner, anonymity is becoming a legendary fantasy from the past.

    S.B. Julian dodges cameras up and down Vancouver Island while investigating local history and ecology.

    Edited by admin

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