TTC gets green light for cameras
The Privacy Commissioner of Ontario has given her stamp of approval to the Toronto Transit Commission’s dramatic expansion of cameras on subways, buses and streetcars, allowing the rollout to continue unimpeded.
By Neil Sutton
“We were very pleased to see the report from the Privacy Commission,”
says TTC chair Adam Giambrone. “It certainly vindicated the TTC
approach. We hadn’t stopped installation during the process, but of
course we would have had to stop had the Privacy Commission issued an
The TTC started to install cameras in 2006 and plans to have about
11,000 in place by mid-2009. Commissioner Ann Cavoukian’s report, published earlier this
month, was written in response to a complaint filed by U.K.-based
privacy advocate Privacy International that the cameras were an
unnecessary intrusion and not an effective crime deterrent.
“At first I thought, ‘They’re complaining about our system when in
their own backyard they’ve got 4.2 million cameras?’” says Cavoukian,
referring to the number of cameras in public spaces in the U.K. –
enough to capture the average Briton 300 times in one day.
“That was my initial knee-jerk reaction, but then I thought, it would be a good thing to write a report on this anyway.”
In her report, Cavoukian offered several recommendations to the TTC.
She proposed that the TTC only keep video data on file for a maximum of
72 hours unless it’s required for an investigation. Three days is time
period currently used by Toronto police for video storage. “If the
police can live with 72 hours, so can the TTC,” she says.
She also said cameras should not be manned by a live person to
discourage abuse such as deliberate invasions of privacy. “When you
have a live body, that’s when the potential for voyeurism takes place,”
she says. The London Underground, for example, has experienced problems
of live camera operators using the technology to spy on women.
Cavoukian has also endorsed an encryption technology currently under
development at the University of Toronto. Using this technology,
recorded video can be altered to disguise faces and later be
reconstituted if necessary using a decryption key.
Giambrone says that the TTC is taking these recommendations under advisement including the evaluation the U of T software.
“They seem very helpful — they don’t pose any challenges to us from a
policy or logistics perspective. I think it just shows the TTC acted
responsibly and prudently in rolling out its camera program,” he says.
The TTC will issue a report later this month explaining how it plans to
integrate the Privacy Commissioner’s findings into its camera rollout.
Bob Gauvreau, manager of corporate security for the City of Ottawa, says the Cavoukian report contains good advice for large municipalities working on a camera rollout. However, he balked at the suggestion that 72 hours is a feasible time frame for keeping video data, since not all crimes are reported immediately.
“To me, it does not make sense. For example, if you have a sexual assault, victims are shy to come forward with these things. After they come forward after three or four days, it gets assigned to an investigator (but) all the valuable footage might be gone.”
When the TTC first embarked on its CCTV program, cameras were
principally thought to be a crime deterrent (and to gather evidence
against criminals) and a means to combat terrorist threats. But they
could also serve a more utilitarian purpose like crowd control, says
“It also allows us to monitor the system — to give us an idea of what’s
going on in our platforms,” he says. “For example, the Ossington
platform has overcrowding issues which can pose a safety issue for the
system. We can go and actually see what’s going on instead of waiting
until we can get an inspector over there to see what’s going on.”
Cavoukian believes CCTV will be well received by the Toronto public.
“I don’t say this with great comfort, being a Privacy Commissioner, but
I think they’re going to welcome it. The reaction that I’ve got is,
‘Why (do the report)? We like the cameras,’” she says.
“When I’ve talked to people about the cameras, it either means nothing
to them . . . or they actively want the cameras to be there. I was
surprised by that latter view.”
Cameras are becoming so common in people’s lives that they’ve come to
accept them, says Dilip Sarangan, an analyst with research firm Frost
& Sullivan. The threat of terrorism — particularly on U.S. soil —
has made surveillance a necessary evil.
“It’s more of a fear factor. The average person is more accepting of the idea that this is what needs to be done.”