Surveillance is not safety: Vancouver must drop City Council CCTV motion

By Daniella Barreto & Meenakshi Mannoe

This week, Vancouver City Council is considering a motion that calls for an expansion of CCTV throughout the city. If approved, this motion could blanket the city in surveillance. 

Members’ Motion B4 suggests that CCTV would be used for the “Purpose of Public Safety and Deterring and Solving Violent Crime,” however, there is little evidence that suggests CCTV is an effective intervention in these instances. 

Globally, there is a persistent and unquestioning belief that CCTV technology does what it claims to do– make us safer. While it’s tempting to believe that covering the city with cameras would eliminate violence and crime, the reality is that surveillance cameras do not stop crime nor do they increase public safety. 

CCTV surveillance reproduces many of the same concerns that are endemic in policing - anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, anti-poor criminalization

Rather than a quick solution, CCTV surveillance reproduces many of the same concerns that are endemic in policing - anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, anti-poor criminalization - and also introduces new human rights and privacy concerns.

What does CCTV solve?

CCTV has been positioned as a necessary element of public safety. In reality, the proliferation of CCTVs is a classic example of “technosolutionism”—the idea that if we just have better technology and more data we can easily solve complex social problems. In reality, evidence on the effectiveness of CCTV is quite ambiguous. 

Treating CCTV as a panacea is a misguided and inappropriate public policy approach. Putting up cameras does not reduce crime. Putting up cameras does not address structural inequality, poverty, or cyclical displacement. Putting up cameras does not eliminate human rights violations. 

Technology will not solve the social inequality that increasingly defines Vancouver. 

Racism and Fear

Surveillance has a long racist history. Simone Browne, author of Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, observes “Surveillance is nothing new to black folks. It is the fact of antiblackness.” As the BCCLA highlighted in its 2021 webinar Predict and Surveil: Indigenous, Black, and Muslim communities as well as activist groups have long been subjected to illegal surveillance, making it essential to consider how new forms of technological surveillance and criminalization impact already over-policed communities by reconfiguring state and social power.

Modern surveillance continues to target Black and Indigenous people, as powerful institutions such as the police are the ones doing the watching. Police technologies - such as street sweeps and CCTV surveillance - cannot be disentangled from structural racism. We know that Black and Indigenous people are targeted by street checks, drug possession arrests, and wrongful handcuffing incidents

These technologies allow the police to continue to exercise and enforce stealthy but harmful methods of discriminatory policing.

As Constantine Gidaris writes, "among the police’s exhaustive list of lethal and non-lethal weapons, automated surveillance technologies must be further scrutinized. These technologies allow the police to continue to exercise and enforce stealthy but harmful methods of discriminatory policing.”

CCTV & Facial Recognition Technology

Members’ Motion B4 also refers to facial recognition technology (FRT) that has been used in conjunction with surveillance footage in different jurisdictions. While the motion does not directly call for FRT, it’s possible that facial recognition could be used on the footage in the future or without public or even police leadership’s knowledge.

In 2021, OpenMedia filed a complaint with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC) over the VPD’s “past and potential future use of facial recognition,” as part of their campaign to ban police nationally from using mass digital facial recognition in Canada. 

Following the complaint, the VPD confirmed that facial recognition technology would not be implemented operationally or for investigative purposes in the absence of approved policy. At this time, the VPD Regulations & Procedures Manual does not contain any reference to policies or practices governing facial recognition technology. 

In response to the newly-proposed expansion of  CCTV, Bryan Short, Digital Rights Campaigner at OpenMedia warns: 

This motion proposes a dystopian future for Vancouver. By advocating for the transformation of our public spaces through an expensive, invasive, mass surveillance system, in its praise of facial recognition technology – a technology that’s been shown to be biased and discriminatory – this motion creates a false choice between our fundamental right to privacy and public safety. I’m confident that Vancouver can have both public safety and a reasonable expectation of privacy in its public spaces, and I'm absolutely certain that balance won’t be achieved through a vast network of publicly owned, police monitored, cameras.

Globally, many human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have called for a total ban on the use, development, production, and sale of facial recognition by the police.  

Centering Human Rights 

Surveillance technologies like CCTV enable social classification and sorting. While these technologies are now presented as neutral and effective tools for deterrence and investigation, we must situate CCTV within the long history of state surveillance - from the use of the Pass System to control the movements of Indigenous people, to anti-Black street checks, to the discriminatory targeting of people who rely on public space. 

Surveillance is an exercise in power. 

Ash Peplow Ball, Managing Director at Women Transforming Cities challenges the enthusiasm behind CCTV expansion: 

Increasing CCTV is another expensive and dangerous tool to further criminalize women who are living in the DTES, especially racialized women and girls, drug users, and sex workers. Research from Australia shows that the presence of CCTV makes women feel less safe in public spaces as it is viewed as an indicator that the space is unsafe. This results in women spending less time in public spaces. Women and girls deserve evidence-based solutions that tackle the core of public safety, rather than technology that watches their movement. And we know what makes a difference: more accessible public spaces, affordable housing, front line mental health support, accessible and affordable transit, well lit streets, walkable neighborhoods.

Grassroots Resistance

In response to Members Motion B4, we encourage Vancouver City Council to firmly oppose any calls for the expansion of CCTV in our communities. CCTV exacerbates oppressive conditions, and serves to further criminalize and displace poor people, Black people and Indigenous people. The use of this technology also threatens privacy rights and erodes the human rights of those communities subject to surveillance. 

We encourage those interested in challenging the use of CCTV to learn from grassroots groups that have fought this technology in their cities, including: 

Rather than investing in technosolutions, we call on City Council to focus on resources that build inclusion, equity and dignity, rather than surveillance, discrimination, and displacement. 

READ: Joint letter opposing CCTV Cameras for the Purpose of Public Safety and Deterring and Solving Violent Crime (April 2022) 

Daniella Barreto is the Digital Activism Coordinator at Amnesty International Canada. She is the creator and producer of Amnesty’s upcoming podcast on anti-Black racism, policing, and surveillance. 

Meenakshi Mannoe is the criminalization & policing campaigner at Pivot Legal Society

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