Sunday, December 30, 2007

Offsite surveillance in Halifax bar may set precedent

I was interviewed the other day by Chris Lambie of the Halifax Chronicle Herald in response to the recent decision to restore the liquor license of a well-known Halifax bar on the condition that it double its surveillance cameras and allow the feeds to be reviewed off-site by the police (See: Canadian Privacy Law Blog: Halifax bar gets liquor license back on condition that cops have off-site access to surveillance system). I didn't realize that my comments would form its own article ...

Dome agreeing to let cops monitor patrons via in-house cameras could set precedent, privacy expert fears - Nova Scotia News -

By CHRIS LAMBIE Staff Reporter

Sun. Dec 30 - 5:27 AM

The decision to give law enforcement officials access to surveillance cameras at the Dome bar complex in downtown Halifax could mean other bars will be forced to do the same if they want to keep selling booze, says a privacy expert.

Authorities closed the Dome after a brawl early on Dec. 24 resulted in 38 arrests. The bar is back in business now, but only after it agreed to implement a long list of security measures, which include giving police and liquor inspectors full access to surveillance cameras at the premises or via the Internet.

"The biggest risk is this can become more common, and once you start doing that it’s very easy to extend it further and extend it further," said David Fraser, a privacy lawyer in Halifax.

"They see it work in once place and they extend it all over the place. And then it’s impossible to go out and have a drink without actually being watched by the police. A lot of people would get freaked out by that."

Once police and liquor inspectors get access to surveillance cameras in bars with a history of violence, authorities could make it mandatory in establishments with potential for problems, Mr. Fraser said.

"As these things become more normal or more standard, the less jarring it is for those who actually care about privacy.

"If you put a frog in a pot of cold water and you turn up the heat, it’s not going to jump out because it doesn’t notice the incremental changes."

There would be few limits on what authorities could do with the information they gather from surveillance cameras, Mr. Fraser said.

"It’s really no different than, theoretically, having a cop sitting at the bar or walking around the establishment. It’s just a whole lot more convenient and probably more pervasive."

Mr. Fraser said he’d be less likely to have a drink in a bar if he knew authorities could be watching.

"The idea of being watched at all has a psychological kind of a factor. For some people, it adds enough of a creep-out factor that, if you’re given the choice of two places that are otherwise identical, one has video surveillance which you know is being watched by cops and the other one doesn’t, regardless of whether or not you intend to do anything unlawful, you’d probably go to the place that was slightly less creepy. At least that would be my own inclination."

The more people watching surveillance cameras in bars, the more room there is for abuse, Mr. Fraser said.

"Sometimes on cable (TV) you’ll see these shows of weird things caught on surveillance," he said.

"Many of them come from the United Kingdom, where there’s pervasive surveillance by law enforcement. And people are making copies of these tapes when they see funny things. And you can tell, when you see how the cameras zoom, that they follow attractive women’s bottoms and things like that. Stuff like that really has the potential to be abused."

Police aren’t sure yet how they’ll use 64 surveillance cameras at the Dome.

"This is something new to us. We’ve never had access to their cameras, other than, as in any establishment, you would have after (a crime) for the purpose of investigation," Halifax Regional Police Supt. Don Spicer said after Friday’s Utility and Review Board hearing that reinstated the Dome’s liquor licence.

"So we really have to look at what we really will be doing with the access that we will be gaining."

There are signs outside the Dome indicating the bar is under video surveillance.

"When you go to a public place, which a bar is, and the signs are posted, I don’t think there will be any problems," said Environment and Labour Minister Mark Parent, who is responsible for the alcohol and gaming division.

The new camera system means liquor inspectors will be able to monitor the bar without being there, Mr. Parent said.

"That was something that the bar owner offered voluntarily and it makes our job that much easier," he said.

It does set a precedent "for bars like the Dome," Mr. Parent said.

"It clearly sends a signal to any other establishment that’s having problems that they need to take some dramatic steps."

At first, Mr. Parent said it’s not akin to the all-seeing Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-four.

"I guess Big Brother if you want to put it in that sense, if you’re out to do something wrong," he said. "If you’re not out to do something wrong, then I think you’d see it as a safeguard."

The cameras are "an effective low-cost tool because we don’t have the staffing to be everywhere at once," Mr. Parent said. "So I think the important thing is that notices are up so people know, so that it’s not a surprise to them."

Surveillance video could be used to both indict and clear people of any wrongdoing, he said.

"Certainly there are privacy concerns that need to be addressed," Mr. Parent said. "The tapes would need to be used only by official people. You’d have to be very careful how you used them and they would have to make sure that there was no abuse of that in any way. . . . It’s always a balance between public safety and public privacy."

Update: I was just interviewed by CBC Radio News here in Halifax on the story. Here's the piece:

Here, also, is the order of reinstatement from the Utility and Review Board of Nova Scotia.

Update: Here's a CBC online report: Police plans for Halifax bar surveillance cameras cause concerns.

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