Posted by: Heather Forbes | July 5, 2010

Surveillance in the Streets, and the Media

First, some updates: about a month ago, a bill was introduced in the BC Legislature to amend the Education Act to change the process for approving video surveillance in B.C. public schools. We wrote a letter to the Minister of Education about it, and a fair number of news media picked up on it. Since then, there was some coverage on the discussion of the amendment in the legislature.  Thanks to everyone who took the opportunity to support our advocacy work on this issue.

Also emerging last week, an article about the upcoming announcement from ICBC regarding the purchase and introduction of 140 new digital surveillance cameras to accident-prone intersections in the province. 

We’re watching this issue closely and will be reporting back on this at a later date.  Suffice to say, we do have points of concern over the installation of digital cameras in intersections by ICBC. There have been instances in other places where traffic cameras have been utilized for more than their originally expressed purposes, which, without a very explicit and enforced regulatory framework (which BC lacks) can be a very slippery slope towards increasingly problematic surveillance.  Another point is that these cameras might be better for issuing tickets (and generating revenue) than actually making streets safer. If generating revenue is the expressed interest, then so be it, but surveillance cameras should not be presented as instruments of safety-making if their influence on driving safety is unproven (which is it).  Choosing to spend $23 million on cameras instead of human policing, improved signage or changes to traffic movement, positions these cameras as a viable alternative to these other approaches, when their efficacy is unproven and their place in public space infringes on our civil liberties.

In the media discourse on surveillance, narratives and arguments tend to re-emerge from story to story. Almost inevitably George Orwell’s name gets invoked. And almost inevitably, there are articles that position surveillance as a tool for ensuring safety and security whose deployment doesn’t require much contestation. After all, who could be against something that makes our people and property more safe?

There is another narrative to which we, at the VPSN, are doing our best to contribute. In all discussions of surveillance, we feel it is important to prod at the assumed benign nature of surveillance cameras. Do they achieve what they are purported to achieve? Do they have any negative impacts? Do they make us, our stuff and our public space safer? Do they detract from our experience of public life, or infringe on our rights?

It’s refreshing when we see media coverage and public dialogues that frame the discussion of surveillance in these terms. In surveillance, as with so many public issues, it is important to ensure we are formulating our views on information, not limited assumptions.

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