Friday, April 01, 2005

Debate over surveillance cameras in Halifax

A minor controversey is brewing here in Halifax over surveillance on Spring Garden Road, Halifax's principal shopping street. (See PIPEDA and Canadian Privacy Law: Surveillance cameras coming to Halifax's public places.) Merchants on the street are increasingly distressed by the number of young 'uns and panhandlers who hang out on the street, intimidating the shoppers. A lack of police on the street has led them to hire their own rent-a-cops. Now the merchants association wants to install their own video cameras to monitor the sidewalks and other public spaces. This has led to some comment, including an editorial from Bruce Wark in The Coast:

Upfront - Columnists - The Coast (MARCH 31 - APRIL 7 2005):

"The friendly folks at the credit union want to “see” my face and eyes, but they also have designs on my ears. The lobby with the cash machines is filled with the din of a happy voice informing me from overhead speakers about the incredibly low rates the credit union charges for loans. I do not want any more loans thank you, just reasonable fees, decent service and at least a tiny bit of interest on my savings. But the happy voice says nothing about that—at least, not as far as I can tell. A couple of weeks ago, the sound system went to rat shit. When I visited last Sunday, there was still a happy-voiced roar but it was so muffled, I couldn’t make out any words. Call me bitter and twisted, but as far as I can tell, the folks at the credit union do not “see” my face at all—the face of a longtime customer and financial supporter. No, to them, I look like either a potential criminal, or a stupid fool they can peddle loans to.

I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on the friendly folks at the credit union. They’re merely following the latest surveillance and marketing trends. In some Nova Scotia high schools for instance, administrators with expensive cameras spy on teenaged students while also selling the teenage thirst for soft drinks and fruit juices to the cola companies. (The high schools get kickbacks from the vending machines in exchange for giving the companies exclusive access to their students.) Some of our fine universities charge young adults sky-high tuition fees, then watch them with cameras and peddle them to big corporations. Ah yes, the morning Ethics 1000 class (enrollment 800) will be held in the Dominion Petroleum Building, in the Bank of Big Profits Lecture Hall, just down the corridor past the spy cams. And students, don’t forget to buy lunch cooked up by International Plasti-Foods Inc. in the Chemical Corporation Dining Room. Happy learning!

Now some Spring Garden merchants are yammering about the need for surveillance cameras on Halifax’s main drag where “young hooligans” have been swarming and robbing. As I see it, the call for spy cams is part of the ongoing campaign against panhandlers, the homeless and otherwise down-at-the-heel citizens, too poor to spend serious coin in Spring Garden boutiques, beauty parlours, eateries and watering holes. Mind you, as a solid middle-class burgher with a big, no-interest savings account at the Heritage Credit Union, I’m not defending swarming and robbing. But I can’t see how surveillance cameras will solve our social problems. Call me bitter and twisted, but I’d say some Spring Garden merchants see those of us on the public sidewalks as either criminals-in-waiting who need to be spied on, or gullible fools who can be made to believe that a few spy cams will make the world safe. I can just see the signs now: “We love to see your faces... and for security reasons, please remove all hats, helmets and sunglasses when ambling down our lovely Spring Garden Road.”""

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