It's hard to believe that in 2001 anyone would long for the good old days of 1984. But take a handful of cameras, a copy of George Orwell's classic and a man who always wanted to be a cop, and you have a recipe for what ended up being the first decision under our new federal privacy law.
The unlikely setting is Yellowknife, with a population of about 17,000. On one side, David Beckwith, owner of Centurion Security Systems. On the other, the residents of Yellowknife and the Information and Privacy Commissioner of the Northwest Territories.
Mr. Beckwith decided the city needs an extra set of eyes -- and maybe ears -- to crack down on crime. Being in the security business, he had cameras to spare. He hauled four on to the roof of his building and pointed them at the main intersection in town. He figured he could pick up the tab for the first year and try to get the city and RCMP to buy in. The plan was to install 20 cameras across the city and possibly even outfit them to pick up sound.
When Centurion started claiming the cameras were capable of picking up voices, angry residents complained to Mayor Gordon Van Tighem, who asked the firm to take them down. Centurion did, reluctantly, suggesting that the cameras were coming down -- for now.
It didn't take long for Mr. Beckwith to become known as the "Big Brother" of town. Oddly enough, the Mayor says the nickname was self-imposed. "The gentleman from Centurion Security read an excerpt from Nineteen Eighty-Four and thought it was a good thing," Mr. Van Tighem explains. He then wrote to the city, pitching his idea and saying "he was bringing Big Brother to Yellowknife."
Mr. Beckwith doesn't get it. In an interview, he said he doesn't understand why the residents would be upset. "If they're not doing anything wrong," he insists, "they should have nothing to hide." But as the Mayor counters, if they're not doing anything wrong, what is the point of watching at all? Centurion, it seems, watched because it could, without much regard to whether it should.
The community reaction prompted Elaine Keenan Bengts, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of the Northwest Territories, to file a complaint with the federal Privacy Commissioner under the new federal privacy law. "The furor it caused in the community was tremendous. For most people, it seemed to be a reaction from the gut," Ms. Bengts said.
The new law sets out rules for how the private sector can collect, use and disclose "personal information" in "commercial activities." If you're collecting information about people, you need to tell them why and get their consent. You need to ensure that when you're gathering information, you collect no more than you really need. And you can only collect personal information for purposes "a reasonable person would consider appropriate in the circumstances."
Centurion failed on all three counts. It was watching the city's residents for no other reason than to promote its business.
George Radwanski, the federal Privacy Commissioner, ruled such monitoring is against the law. "There is no place in our society for unauthorized surveillance of public places by private sector organizations for commercial reasons," he held. It doesn't matter that in monitoring the streets, Centurion was not actually recording anything on tape. "The fact that the feed was live and not taped is not relevant," the commissioner wrote. "[A] camera by its very nature is an instrument that is designed to record. Whether it contains film at any given moment, or whether it is functioning well or is defective, does not alter the nature of the activity."
The more important factor, the commissioner suggests, is how cameras aimed at people make them feel. "People have a right to go about their business without feeling that their actions are being systematically observed and monitored. That is the very essence of the fundamental human right to privacy, which is a crucial element of our freedom," he wrote.
"I very much believe that no one wants to go through life feeling that, at any given moment, someone may be looking over our shoulder, observing every action, every transaction, perhaps every human contact.
"If we have to go through life feeling that that is going on, then we are not truly free," Mr. Radwanski said in an interview.
Lesia Stangret is an information technology lawyer in Toronto.
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