Who’s Watching Torontonians?
There are CCTV surveillance cameras all over the city—here's who owns them, and what they're doing to protect your privacy.
Toronto is wired up. If you look carefully, just tilt your head up a touch, you’ll notice how many CCTV surveillance cameras there are in this city. From street corners, to subways, to shopping malls and apartment buildings, there are few spots around town that aren’t under some kind of video surveillance.
Whether you’re in favour of them or not, the unblinking electric eyes are out in force. The key to living with them is to ensure surveillance is conducted in a responsible, transparent manner, with minimal intrusion into people’s privacy.
In 2007, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario Ann Cavoukian released a set of guidelines for the use of video surveillance in public places. “Institutions must balance the public benefits of video surveillance against an individual’s right to be free of unwarranted intrusion into his or her life,” she wrote. “Pervasive, routine and random surveillance of ordinary, lawful public activities interferes with an individual’s privacy.”
Most of the surveillance cameras encountered by the average Torontonian likely belong to either the police, the TTC, or private business owners. Here’s a look at how each of those groups is endeavouring to balance security with privacy.
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Toronto Police have had surveillance cameras operating around the city since 2007. Currently there are 21 police cameras in the downtown core and three more in the Jane and Lawrence-Weston and Lawrence area.
Do CCTV cameras actually help prevent crimes? Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair says yes. Some police forces and security experts say no. Cavoukian is unsure.
But the police do take certain measures to preserve the privacy of innocent passersby. As a Toronto Police spokesman told the National Post last year, the cameras are not monitored live, and all footage is overwritten after 72 hours. That means there’s no officer in a booth watching your every move, nor a Raiders of the Lost Ark–style warehouse where CCTV footage is stored for future generations of cops to gawk at.
The TTC has thousands of cameras in vehicles and stations around the city to help monitor passenger safety, investigate security concerns, and provide evidence if a crime occurs on TTC property.
There are approximately 2,000 CCTV cameras in subway stations; 26 cameras on each of the TTC’s new subways; four cameras each on 1,857 buses; four each on 195 regular streetcars; seven each on 52 articulated streetcars; and five each on 230 Wheel Trans buses.
The TTC worked with the Information and Privacy Commission (IPC) while piloting the surveillance program in 2006 to ensure that privacy is respected. “We began working with the IPC on a policy following a shooting on a bus and the subsequent decision to pilot CCTV on buses,” says TTC communications director Brad Ross.
In 2007, a U.K.-based privacy watchdog asked that TTC’s surveillance methods be reviewed for privacy violations. Cavoukian’s subsequent investigation ended with her giving the transit commission a passing grade, with some recommendations for improving privacy further.
Now the TTC, like the police, keeps footage only for a limited period of time. Cameras on buses and streetcars have 15 hours of recording time before they are overwritten with new footage. Station and subway cameras retain 72 hours of film before overwriting. And Wheel Trans cams keep a week’s worth of surveillance, on the basis that complaints on those special vehicles may take longer to be reported.
“We have very express guidelines for CCTV use,” says Ross. “We do not live monitor any vehicles, only certain subway platforms for crowd control. Station collectors are able to view the platforms of their respective station for safety and security reasons.”
Scores of shops, malls, office buildings, and other privately owned properties in Toronto have surveillance cameras both inside and outside their premises.
Yorkdale Shopping Centre garnered plenty of media buzz this year when it spent $3.4 million upgrading its security system. But not all commercial enterprises’ surveillance is that well publicized.
In 2010 and 2011, Professor Andrew Clement of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information led a project to compile lists of the CCTV cameras in and around the Eaton Centre, from City Hall to Dundas Square. His team turned up 399 cameras in the Eaton Centre alone, and dozens more at nearby buildings. Worse, the overwhelming majority of cameras (73 per cent of those in the mall) lacked any kind of signage to indicate their presence.
According to Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), organizations that record members of the public with video surveillance must have prominent signs letting people know they are being filmed, why they are being filmed, and how they can get a copy of the film. But, as Clement’s research suggests, many stores install cameras without adhering to the PIPEDA guidelines.