Lauren Boothby/VICTORIA NEWS                                Victoria staff are drafting a privacy policy on footage collected from cameras like this one at the intersection of Pandora Avenue/Douglas Street.

Lauren Boothby/VICTORIA NEWS Victoria staff are drafting a privacy policy on footage collected from cameras like this one at the intersection of Pandora Avenue/Douglas Street.

B.C. Privacy Commissioner consults Victoria on traffic camera policy

Footage may be shared with law enforcement in the future

Victoria is watching and filming drivers. It has been for nearly a decade.

What isn’t clear is what the city is able to do with what it sees.

B.C.’s privacy commissioner has started talks with the city to develop a privacy policy on the footage collected from traffic cameras, and how it is shared both internally and with outside agencies, such as police. No such policy is currently in place.

What kind of information is collected by these cameras, how and for what length of time it is stored, who it is disclosed to, and whether it meets the requirements of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FIPPA) are things under investigation.

Currently, 15 traffic cameras monitor Victoria, such as those located on the Douglas Street corridor measuring traffic flow by capturing live footage of vehicles in the intersection.

Coun. Ben Isitt asked about a privacy policy during budget discussions about upgrading the season. According to the draft budget: “we can give VicPD access to our traffic cameras to monitor events and maintain crowd control, or possible attacks on the city.”

Isitt said a policy is needed so cameras are used for their stated purpose of monitoring traffic flows and sending information to a traffic control system, not wider surveillance.

“[Privacy] protections are the difference between living in a free society and a police state, where law-abiding citizens aren’t subjected to unreasonable surveillance,” he said.

The cameras are potentially of a high enough quality to capture faces and licence plates, depending on their placement. The footage isn’t monitored on a continuous basis or stored, but staff still recommended creating a privacy policy so information is restricted to key personnel.

VicPD spokesperson Const. Matt Rutherford said the department does not currently have access to the traffic cameras, something the City’s assistant director of transportation Brad Dellebuur confirmed. He said the policy is pre-emptive means of determine what to do should the city wish to share the footage with law enforcement.

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Right now, the city does not have a policy, Dellebuur said, because it does not store or share images. However, the current system does have the capacity to do so, and live feeds can be accessed by transportation staff remotely.

“The technology does exist to record information at a signalized intersection, vehicle movements as well, but we don’t,” he said. “As that technology grows, you need to restrict it only to the people that need to see it.”

Acting deputy privacy commissioner Brad Weldon said local government use of cameras across the province is increasingly coming to the attention of the commission.

“Video surveillance is a particularly privacy-invasive method of collecting personal information,” he said, adding that the legal threshold for what can be collected under privacy law is high. “If the city wants to put up cameras for traffic management, then we would look to see that the personal information being collected was the amount necessary to achieve that purpose.”

Capturing the number of cars that pass, he said, would be appropriate. But there is no reason images need to be of such high resolution faces and licence plates are readable, he said. These are the kinds of issues the commission would address when working with local governments, including how information is shared with law enforcement.

“If you aren’t breaking the law, and you’re going about your daily business, you have a right to not be subject to surveillance by law enforcement,” he said. “We would want to see a policy that sets out clearly how law enforcement has access to that information.”

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Weldon was unaware of the city’s situation prior to being contacted by the News, but the privacy commission made contact with City staff since to look into how the city uses cameras and advise on a policy.

Weldon recommends the City conduct a privacy impact assessment with the commission to ensure they are complying with provincial laws. While not required, Weldon said most local governments use these to demonstrate they have an effective privacy management program in place.

VicPD previously installed temporary cameras for certain public events, like during the Canada Day celebrations last summer, removed after the event. VicPD also have one vehicle equipped with automated licence plate readers that flag vehicles with prohibited drivers or stolen cars.

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