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Privacy questions fielded as Windsor’s video surveillance network continues to grow

Matt Povah, IT specialist with the Town of Windsor and chief architect of the surveillance camera network, says the network is expanding to approximately 50 cameras this year.
Matt Povah, IT specialist with the Town of Windsor and chief architect of the surveillance camera network, says the network is expanding to approximately 50 cameras this year. - Colin Chisholm

Town officials, RCMP see public cameras as crime-reduction tools

WINDSOR, N.S. —

The Town of Windsor is continuing to expand its surveillance camera network, a network that already leads the province in terms of its sophistication and depth.

The cameras, which cover town-owned buildings, major thoroughfares in town and more, are used by RCMP and select town staff for traffic monitoring.

Matt Povah, IT specialist for the town and chief architect of the network, said there are currently 33 cameras in operation.

By the end of 2019, Windsor could have close to 50.

The existing cameras are primarily based on town-owned facilities, like the Hants Aquatic Centre, Pisiquid Canoe Club and the Walter B. Stephens Building (town hall).

The program began in 2011-12 and has slowly expanded since then.

The new cameras are focused primarily on traffic, routes leading in and out of town.

One set of the new cameras will be at the intersection of Cole Drive and Wentworth Road, another at the intersection of Payzant Drive and Wentworth Road, and an enhancement at the system at O’Brien Street and Wentworth Road.

Another system will be installed at King and Water Street and another at the Falmouth bridge, along with more in the downtown core.

Phase four will involve extending the fibre network down Highway 1 and setting up a camera cluster near Maplewood Cemetery, as well as the intersection of Highway 14 (Chester Road) and Highway 1.

“We’re building on the platform we’ve already built and what that gives us is a solid foundation for the entries and exits into town,” Povah said. “This has all been in consultation with the RCMP, so if something is stolen downtown, at some point, they’d have to travel past the surveillance to get out of town.”

The outdoor cameras (some are inside town buildings) are all Bosch Starlight high-resolution cameras. They capture high definition video and switch to night vision when the sun goes down.

The video feed is precise enough to pick up license plate numbers.

No audio is recorded.

The video is stored for 58 days on a server before being wiped.

NO EXPECTATION OF PRIVACY

When asked if the surveillance network could be seen as excessive, Povah said standards and attitudes around the technology are changing.

“We don’t believe there should be any expectation of complete privacy in a public space, especially in this day and age,” Povah said.

“Everyone carries (a smartphone) with them, so are you ever really private in a public space?” he asked.

“People have expressed to us that they felt comfortable now sending their children to our recreational facilities (because of the cameras),” he said.

Povah has designed security camera layouts for other neighbouring municipalities, including the former town of Hantsport, Berwick, and Kingston, but Windsor’s network is by far the most robust.

“The case completion rate, according to the RCMP, is higher here than in other places in Nova Scotia,” he said. “If a camera is present, then there will always be some measure of response.”

Surveillance cameras surround the Walter B. Stephens building, which houses Windsor’s town hall and fire department. Staff and RCMP officers say the cameras have reduced crime in town.
Surveillance cameras surround the Walter B. Stephens building, which houses Windsor’s town hall and fire department. Staff and RCMP officers say the cameras have reduced crime in town.

The primary cost of this extensive network was the necessary fibre-optic backbone, which is also how the town distributes its public Wi-Fi, which allows all of the cameras to stream and store their feed to the town office.

Total expenditure for the entire project, including the fibre optic backbone, is approximately $130,000. Povah said operational costs are very low.

“It’s relatively inexpensive when you consider the protection for liability that it affords,” he said. “A lawsuit could be up to $1 million against our insurance for a person who says they tripped on our sidewalk and said it was our fault. The video footage can show that they were fooling around or whatever.”

Povah said the former town of Hantsport was able to reduce their fees for RCMP services by deploying the camera system he installed. He estimates that saved the town approximately $150,000 to $200,000 a year prior to its dissolution.

He said Windsor hasn’t reduced police staffing levels since rolling out their camera system.

“Over time, as police requirements become greater, the hope is we’ll be able to save money by arguing that more policing isn’t needed when you have more cameras,” he said.

When the Town of Windsor and Municipality of West Hants consolidate on April 1, 2020, all of the municipal-owned surveillance cameras will be integrated into one system, he said.

“The concept was never to invade privacy, but to provide protection,” he added.

WHO’S WATCHING THE WATCHERS

David Fraser, a privacy lawyer with McInnes Cooper in Halifax, has been involved in the field since 2001. He said citizens do have the right to privacy in public spaces, especially from the state.

“We retain an expectation of privacy, even in public places, and the fact that everyone in their personal life has a smartphone in their pocket with a high-resolution camera doesn’t change their expectation of privacy from state surveillance,” Fraser said. “The notion that there is no privacy because everyone’s posting to Facebook or Instagram is just incorrect.”

Fraser noted a Supreme Court of Canada case in February where a teacher in London, Ont. used a covert camera to observe student’s cleavage in a public school in the hallways.

The Supreme Court found, unanimously, that the students at the school still had an expectation of privacy despite the presence of surveillance cameras inside the public building.

“We have an expectation of privacy in a public space because we (know and can see) who is around,” he said. “If there’s a small camera on an eavestrough or something, I might not even see it or know it’s there. I don’t know that I’m being observed.”

He said there’s a difference between individuals using their personal devices to record video or take pictures in public spaces to capture snippets in time, compared to the 24/7 surveillance cameras.

“If I pull out a camera on my phone and record something on the street, I’m not subject to any privacy laws whatsoever other than voyeurism, which I wouldn’t be doing,” he said. “The police are subject to privacy laws and to the Municipal Government Act, which regulates how they can collect information.”

He said it’s important to evaluate whether or not a privacy-intrusive move provides a proportional benefit to the public. Secondary impacts on the public also have to be looked at, he added.

“If you have cops routinely walking through the downtown, they would actually be engaging with members of the public in a positive way, improving the relationship between police and the community, rather than putting some piece of technology in between the two,” he said. “It’s also incumbent on the police and the town employees to police themselves in their use of this technology.”

Fraser pointed to several examples of the technology being abused in other jurisdictions, including obtaining evidence without a warrant or spying on women to look at their bodies without consent.

“I’ve also seen them used for employee management purposes. For example, an employee taking too many trips to Tim Hortons with the town truck,” he said. “Is that an acceptable use of the technology? It might be legally permissible, but that has to be part of the conversation.”

Fraser said he’d like to see Windsor and other jurisdictions that have deployed this technology conduct a privacy impact assessment to see how the cameras are being used.

The federal and provincial governments usually conduct these assessments when new legislation or programs use, disclose or collect personal information.

It’s a standardized questionnaire that raises privacy issues and controls and identifies potential risks to the public.

WINDSOR CAO RESPONDS

When asked if Windsor would conduct such an assessment, chief administrative officer (CAO) Louis Coutinho said the town has a right to deploy the technology in the interest of public safety and protection of property.

“Abuse of the technology does not occur because we are professionals,” Coutinho said in an email. “We have a secure, limited access system and we use our camera system to enhance public safety and public protection programs and not for any other purpose.”

Coutinho said the town initially began deploying the surveillance cameras after dealing with repeated issues of vandalism at the Pisiquid Canoe Club and in other areas.

“We knew that Hantsport had just deployed a system, so we thought, let's extend that to areas where we were having issues,” he said in an interview. “All of a sudden that started to corral some of the crime.”

Windsor's Chief Administrative Officer Louis Coutinho (left) and Cpl. Luc Cote, with the Windsor RCMP, discuss the police budget with council.
Windsor's Chief Administrative Officer Louis Coutinho (left) and Cpl. Luc Cote, with the Windsor RCMP, discuss the police budget with council.

Cpl. Luc Cote, with the Windsor town detachment of the RCMP, said the cameras have had a positive impact on policing operations.

“The Windsor cameras have assisted us in solving many crimes in Windsor over the past few years, many of which would have likely remained unsolved without these cameras.”

Cote said there have been numerous examples where the cameras have been used to assist in the laying of charges, successful prosecutions and during various other court hearings.

Some of those cases include an assault on Gerrish Street, a serious motor vehicle collision on Water Street, a hit and run at the Windsor Mall, a robbery investigation, damage to property and more.

“Not only have we been able to solve crime utilizing these cameras, we've also been able to refute some claims,” he said. “An investigation into a sexual assault was reported to police by a third party. The cameras clearly showed no such assault had taken place.”

often the cameras are accessed by police varies, Cote said, adding it’s sometimes four to five times a week.

He added that Windsor should be an example for other communities for their surveillance capabilities.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work in various capacities in several parts of Nova Scotia and Windsor is a leader in this area,” he said.

SAFER STREETS?

For many, the value of the system will come down to what’s more important — privacy or security.

For Windsor Mayor Anna Allen, she said she feels more comfortable knowing the camera network is in place.

Once you start looking for them, they’re not hard to miss. More surveillance cameras will start popping up at the entrances and exits of the town.
Once you start looking for them, they’re not hard to miss. More surveillance cameras will start popping up at the entrances and exits of the town.

“You can walk around at night and not feel threatened. It’s just another tool to provide safety and comfort. If it was in my backyard? Yeah, I’d be ticked off, but it’s not, it’s in public spaces where people gather,” she said.

“When I go to the airport, malls, stores, I know there’s cameras rolling; I don’t stop to think about it half the time,” she said. “But I know if something bad happens, there’ll be a witness.”

Allen said that while 50 cameras may seem like a lot, most are clustered around one or more buildings, to ensure all necessary angles are covered.

“The canoe club had monthly instances of people coming down to the building and destroying things,” she said. “It was costing the town thousands of dollars. It doesn’t happen anymore.”

Allen said they also used to have issues with an individual who would throw rocks at the town hall windows, but that has also stopped since the cameras went up.

“This is an enhancement to the town, I don’t think there’s any intimidation or a feeling that you’re being looked at by Big Brother all of the time,” she said.

“If a pedestrian gets hit in a crosswalk, you’re on camera, we know exactly what happened. It could even be used for littering. If someone is dumping garbage on our streets from out of town, they could be busted.”

HRM surveillance network

Brynn Langille, a senior communications advisor with the Halifax Regional Municipality, said the city’s surveillance network has expanded to more than 1,000 surveillance cameras.

“It’s important to note that these cameras are not monitored live, and are mostly used for forensic purposes to examine an event after the fact,” Langille said. “The purpose is for protection of assets, employees, and members of the public who visit municipal facilities.”

Langille said there are no large CCTV deployments planned for HRM in the coming year, however cameras may need to be deployed on a case by case basis depending on budget, which projects/developments have been approved and any potential issues that may arise.

Citizen feedback

The Valley Journal-Advertiser canvassed downtown Windsor for public feedback, and most were in favour of expanding the system.

Many Windsor residents, including Jennifer Haverstock, said they’re happy to see Windsor expanding its surveillance camera network.
Many Windsor residents, including Jennifer Haverstock, said they’re happy to see Windsor expanding its surveillance camera network.

“We need it, crimes are up, and I think people expect now that they can’t go anywhere without being videotaped anyway,” Kiera Riley said. “I think it’s great.”

“There’ve been a lot of break-ins around, so it’s probably a positive thing,” Meghan Lake said.

“I live downtown and one of the biggest issues we have is with traffic. People are not paying attention to crosswalks and so on,” Jennifer Haverstock said. “If it improves the ability of the RCMP to help with that or where to set up checkpoints, that would be a huge improvement in our lives. Any added surveillance also gives us more security for our property.”

“I think it’s a great idea, I’ve lived on Main Street for a few years and this town really needs more surveillance,” Constance Pollock said. “On Friday and Saturday night (downtown) it’s terrible.”

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