VIDEO CAMERAS AND THE RIGHT TO PRIVACY
The announcement last week that the Hamilton Police Service will be installing ten 24 hour a day digital video cameras in public places in downtown Hamilton is a brilliant, if perhaps too modest, proposal.
The plan for now is that in keeping with present requirements of privacy laws, wherever the cameras are positioned there will be signs advising the public that they are under surveillance. Initially, of course, this will only succeed in deterring the activity in those places of illiterate criminals or those who do not have friends who can read. Unfortunately, at least for now, common sense dictates that the downtown drug dealers and occasional muggers will do their business somewhere where those 10 cameras are not watching, which is most places. But don't get side tracked, the goal is not really to do anything about crime, how can it? This is simply the first step in our progress towards a practically perfect future.
So while the initial results may be negligible, we should keep our eye on the long range potential. Presumably, the number of cameras is limited to 10 right now because with land lines to connect them to the central police station they will cost approximately $10,000.00 each. Let’s face it, within 5 years these things won’t need land lines but will be relayed by satellite and how much can a digital camera cost?
Within 5 or 10 years it will be within our grasp to have these cameras in public places all over the city, maybe everywhere.
The present proposal limits access to the video tapes to police and their volunteers. Five or ten years from now when we’ve got these cameras everywhere and we are all used to being under 24 hour surveillance as soon as we step onto the sidewalk in front of our house, are we really going to be that concerned if access to the images on those video cameras is loosened?
As an employment lawyer, I know that it is in the interest of our society that we have a productive and hardworking workforce. Imagine the increase in productivity that can be achieved if employers can have access to these video tapes to monitor the arrival and departure time of employees at work and prove the matter without question in court if they want to terminate the employee. More and more, employees work off-site visiting clients, delivering packages etc. Employers with access to these video tapes could track their movements and find out exactly how long those employees are stopping at the donut shop.
Even if broader access to the video images does not come as soon as I project, think of the fantastic uses to which these cameras could be put if they covered every street in the city.
There are some kids at the end of my dead end street that play basketball. Once in a while they drop the ball and that unsightly thing rolls by my driveway. Added to that is the occasional sound of a bouncing ball that I find so annoying at 10 am on a Saturday morning when I am not trying to wake up. If they had one of these cameras on my street, I would not have to undergo the public scrutiny a recent Hamilton resident did when she complained about kids playing games in the street. A volunteer would immediately see the activity down at the central police station and a car would be dispatched. The kids, and perhaps their parents, would be charged. There could be no getting out of the charge as a result of some doubt as to where the game was actually being played. The video camera tells no lies. Finally, an end to street hockey in Hamilton!
Once all these cameras are set up in public places across the city and we are used to the surveillance, who will care if microphones are added? Think about how this information would assist the City of Hamilton by-law officers who enforce noise complaint by-laws as well as police officers who can lay public mischief charges as a result of noise escaping into the public domain. We could have a perfectly quiet city. Residential real estate prices would increase in Hamilton as compared to other cities. The advertisement could read “The silence of the country in the heart of the city”.
Apparently, no biometrics such as face scans or other new technologies will be used when these cameras are installed later this year. Don’t let that worry you. Give it some time and privacy commissioners won’t blink an eye when face scans are introduced. We will all be used to surveillance and the status quo will have changed. It won’t be such a big deal anymore. Above and beyond all the criminals that might be caught by using digital face scans and comparing them to a computer data base, think of the truant children. We could digitally scan the face of every child who is in trouble for not attending school and if their face shows up during school hours an alarm could go off and a truancy officer could be dispatched. If we make sure there is one of these cameras in every public place in the city there will be nowhere for these kids to hide.
Once the placement of cameras is universal and face scanning is introduced, even those criminals who have been convicted of a crime, sentenced and served their time can be monitored whether they are on probation or not. Even if their probation has long expired they can be tracked. Eventually we won’t need real people to watch the video cameras but we will have a computer do it. Once it has detected the face of anyone ever convicted of a crime, it can track their activity and movements. Certain parameters could be put into the computer so that alarms will be set off if they spend too much time in one particular suspicious place or appear on the screen at the same time with the digitally scanned faces of other convicted criminals.
Let’s face it, chances are if two or more people who have previously been convicted of a crime are spending time together, nothing good can be going on.
As we all get used to this brave new world the requirement that signs be posted indicating that a particular spot is under surveillance can be quietly dropped. If we put these cameras in every public place all those signs would be unsightly anyways and mar the beauty of our increasingly perfect city.
This could also be a great money-making scheme. Once the laws have loosened up, why give access to the service for which the tax payer has shelled out the money to employers, truancy officers or private investigation firms tracking philandering spouses for free?
If an employer wants to track the activities of a malingering employee that’s fine. They can provide a digitally scanned picture of the employee and have that person’s activity tracked by the new computer in all public places for one week for say....$500.00.
George Orwell wrote a wonderful book called “1984” which envisioned the idyllic and peaceful world that can be engineered with universal public surveillance. Although it took us an extra 18 years past Orwell’s projected date, it is extremely gratifying to see that we are finally taking the first steps.
As published in the Hamilton Spectator, January 12, 2002