Todd Howe, WeAreChangeToronto
December 8, 2010
Imagine the following. It’s dusk and you’re walking with your best friends down a quiet side street in a major urban centre. You all stop for a moment under the pooled glow of a streetlight — maybe you light a smoke, or send a text. A few minutes later, someone looks up and so you do, too. There on the utility pole above is a cluster of cameras, their dark spherical globes the strange fruit of an uneasy era, and a sign — Warning: This area under surveillance. In that moment, you see your image reflected in the glassy blister as you regard the camera eye. Freeze frame.
What goes through your mind? Do you feel a little uneasy? Do you feel protected? Or do you think nothing of it?
It’s an encounter and a question that an ever-expanding number of Canadians will experience for themselves in the coming months. On November 15th, Toronto police chief Bill Blair announced his intention to ‘buy back’ 52 of the 67 cameras the Federal government had purchased to monitor the June G20 summit (riot gear and LRAD acoustic cannons for crowd control are to be transferred as well in the federally subsidized arrangement). The G20 cameras, installed in May, were to be removed at the end of the summit and indeed came down in July as promised. It will come as no surprise to those following these developments, however, that they are now back on the agenda. For the past number of years, the Toronto Police Services have been building out the CCTV network in the city through a program of ‘pilot project’ installations and rotating trials that amount to nothing more than a shell game.
First it was the ‘temporary’ holiday season installation of three police surveillance cameras in Yonge and Dundas square in the wake of the 2006 Jane Creba shooting. Then Dalton McGuinty and John Tory got involved, publicly lobbying for the benefits of CCTV and an additional thirteen cameras went up around the city in another ‘six month’ pilot project at a cost of $2 million, a cost covered through the largesse of the Ontario government. Sharp eyed readers will note that it has now been substantially longer than six months since the cameras were installed — 3 years and 7 months, in fact. (See Infographic, below.) If the Toronto Police Services Board approves Blair’s $90k funding request at its January meeting, the number of surveillance cameras deployed in the city will more than triple, rising from 19 to 71. From the CBC:
Blair says the existing cameras have been useful and adding the new cameras could help deal with crime downtown, as well as in other neighbourhoods.
“What we’re seeing is an expansion of our entertainment district. [The cameras have] been used very effectively in the entertainment district, but they’re starting to move a little bit west, so there’s some additional places that we would like to deploy cameras,” he said.
Heads up, Ossington Ave.
CCTV Network Growth vs. ‘Pilot Project’ Length
Click events for media links
It wouldn’t be the first time that a major international event resulted in a persistent surveillance network. Summits and the Olympics have a way of leaving a mark on a city. In many cases, this involves the training of police to paramilitary standards (cf. the ‘Miami Model’, covered here) and the gift of funding from regional or central governments for a large stock of surveillance equipment which — sooner or later — is redeployed after the event is long gone. There’s ample precedent to establish the a pattern. The 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008 Olympic Games have bequeathed a legacy of surveillance cameras to Sydney, Athens, Torino, and Beijing respectively. In the first major Canadian study to be released studying CCTV, A Report on Camera Surveillance in Canada (Lyon, Lippert, Johnson, Deisman et al. 2009), the Surveillance Camera Awareness Network (SCAN) project out of Queens U. wrote (pt. 2, pp77):
As the examples of these cities suggests, such mega-events as the Olympics are “consciously leveraged as development opportunities for long-term security legacies, providing the justification and finances for security and surveillance surges that are intended to leave an infrastructure of urban surveillance (Boyle and Haggerty 2009:19-20)
David Murakami Wood, Assoc. Prof of Surveillance Studies at Queens sounded more optimistic when he wrote in June of this year that
Recent ‘mega-events’ have almost always produced a surge in the numbers of CCTV cameras. In Vancouver for the Winter Olympics, a new CCTV control room was even built, part of the ‘security legacy’ of the games, a trend which followed the Olympic Games in Athens and Soccer World Cups in Japan and Germany. But it is certainly not always the case that such installations are always permanent. These days, many mega-events come with ready-made security requirements and surveillance solutions, which descend on cities for the duration of the event, but then are just as quickly removed afterwards. And certainly, in the case of Toronto, the lack of consultation about extending CCTV would lead us to hope that this is not the start of an uninvited and unnecessary extension of video surveillance.
One might hope. Two other recent G20 host cities, London and Pittsburgh, were already in possession of extensive public surveillance networks which explains why much of the debate has now settled on Toronto and Vancouver. Which is not to say that these cities have a monopoly on the issue. The SCAN study reports that by 2007, at least fourteen Canadian cities had implemented public street surveillance cameras, and at least sixteen others were actively considering, or had considered installing a network. (ibid.,pt.2,pp11)
Better Watch Yourself
In the quote above, Professor Wood mentions a new CCTV control room built to oversee the public network in Vancouver as a legacy of the 2010 Games. That’s bricks-and-mortar infrastructure and it occupies a similar niche in Vancouver’s security ecology as the police intelligence information ‘fusion’ centers that are springing up across America.
While much larger in scale, the ‘super fusion center’ set up to coordinate police, intelligence, and military security teams for the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Colorado (the Colorado Intelligence Analysis Center or CIAC), was constructed to monitor feeds from various surveillance technologies, collate and cross reference the results and liase with over 55 local, state, and federal agencies. With little to no oversight, independent management, and generous DHS funding US Fusion centers have been caught brokering information on peaceful protesters and activists, and in a document leaked from the Missouri Information Analysis Center (MIAC), supporters of libertarian congressional representatives and former presidential candidates Ron Paul, Bob Barr, and Chuck Baldwin were targeted. Muslim civil rights groups, anti-war organizations, even black colleges have also been identified as potential sources of terrorism by these massive datamining operations. The American Civil Liberties Union produced a report, updated in 2008, entitled What’s Wrong With Fusion Centers that’s available here.
In a move mirroring the Colorado DNC experience, an expansion fusion center was situated in Barrie for this summer’s G8/G20 meetings. The Joint Intelligence Group center was built in an old toilet seat factory renovated for the purpose and provided an additional layer of intelligence gathering and operational support to the existing Toronto INSET Special Operations Center, one of four multi-agency intelligence sharing centres in Canada. It remains operational today at a couple of somewhat discreet locations in north Toronto’s industrial parks, readily discoverable via Google Maps.
The point here is that it’s not the private camera in the local convenience store that’s a threat. And overwhelmingly, this is the perception of video surveillance held by most Canadians — unobtrusive, isolated, and only referred to in case of emergency. This is a naÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¯ve perception, because it’s the network rather than the camera itself that introduces the threat. Public surveillance is qualitatively different than private security on account of the resources that the state can bring to bear, the interconnection with other agencies of government, and the potential to automatically create cross-referenced profiles or ‘human mosaics’ on individual citizens. The SCAN report notes that the courts have never subjected public surveillance to a Section 8 test under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that in any future challenge
Surveillance recordings will likely be of particular concern to Courts due to due to their potential to convey intimate details about individuals, especially as computers provide the ability to collate, compare, and analyze recordings together, allowing new conclusions to be drawn from what would otherwise be meaningless information. Any additional connections to biometric systems will likely be met with even greater concern. (SCAN report pt.2,pp.21)
(Biometric face scans, incidentally, are no longer the province of speculative fiction and may be readily implemented on public surveillance networks — though with questionable accuracy. A borough of London, England trialed such a system in 2002, Germany and Australia use it in their border screening processes, and INTERPOL wants to see a global system established.)
In the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s annual report to Parliament for 2001-2002, commissioner George Radwanski also attempted to warn Canadians of the substantive threat of an interconnected and over-exuberant security state. The following is from the Commissioner’s Overview:
The fundamental human right of privacy in Canada is under assault as never before. Unless the Government of Canada is quickly dissuaded from its present course by Parliamentary action and public insistence, we are on a path that may well lead to the permanent loss not only of privacy rights that we take for granted but also of important elements of freedom as we now know it.
He identifies as threats to privacy the following
…dramatically enhanced state powers to monitor our communications, as set out in the “Lawful Access” consultation paper; a national ID card with biometric identifiers, as advanced by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Denis Coderre; and the Government’s support of precedent-setting video surveillance of public streets by the RCMP.
The federal privacy commissioner continues
A popular response is: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
By that reasoning, of course, we shouldn’t mind if the police were free to come into our homes at any time just to look around, if all our telephone conversations were monitored, if all our mail were read, if all the protections developed over centuries were swept away. It’s only a difference of degree from the intrusions already being implemented or considered.
The truth is that we all do have something to hide, not because it’s criminal or even shameful, but simply because it’s private. We carefully calibrate what we reveal about ourselves to others. Most of us are only willing to have a few things known about us by a stranger, more by an acquaintance, and the most by a very close friend or a romantic partner. The right not to be known against our will – indeed, the right to be anonymous except when we choose to identify ourselves – is at the very core of human dignity, autonomy and freedom.
If we allow the state to sweep away the normal walls of privacy that protect the details of our lives, we will consign ourselves psychologically to living in a fishbowl. Even if we suffered no other specific harm as a result, that alone would profoundly change how we feel. Anyone who has lived in a totalitarian society can attest that what often felt most oppressive was precisely the lack of privacy.
As the CBC reported, Radwanski resigned under fire in 2003, blaming “a powerful political backlash from some who would prefer a less forceful privacy commissioner.”
And yet Comissioner Radwanski’s foresight has been vindicated. His warnings regarding the monitoring of communications, the proposed biometric tracking of citizens and the expansion of video surveillance on public streets are now reflected in current Federal and Provincial initiatives to track internet usage and the integration of biometrics and RFID radio tags with Canadian’s drivers licenses and passports. In regards to surveillance, British Columbia is building a network of license-plate scanning cameras on its roadways and pilot projects are already in place in Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario to mount roving scanners on police cruisers, a technology capable of running thousands of plates through a police database per day regardless of whether there’s any suspicion that a crime has been committed. We won’t even get into the stripsearch scanners now in use at major airports. And in perhaps the most disturbing preview of the new technologies coming online, the Canadian Bankers Association supplied the Toronto Police Service with face scanning software to troll through the hours of footage generated by G20 security cameras, a move that should raise difficult questions about conflict of interest in the wake of the financial summit.
Though the rollout of these technologies are in their infancy, there’s no expectation that their expansion will be arrested any time soon, enabled as they are by handouts from Provincial and Federal governments. Your tax dollars at work.
Pulling Wool over Canadian Eyes
With massive sums and hard-won civil rights at stake, Canadian taxpayers might at the very least ask if they’re getting value for their tax dollar.
Astonishingly, there is no evidence to indicate that surveillance networks are particularly effective either at preventing crime or solving crimes once they’ve occurred — the parade of unsolved surveillance images on network television programmes like Crime Stoppers bears ironic witness to this fact. While high profile shootings are often used to mobilize public opinion in favour of camera surveillance, the RCMP’s own report suggests only that some forms of property crime may be deterred, in some circumstances, while there is little support for the claim that they prevent crimes against persons. (SCAN pt.1,pp14)
Similarly, a major 2005 report prepared for the UK Home Office and surveying 14 CCTV systems there found that “the majority of the schemes evaluated did not reduce crime and even where there was a reduction this was mostly not due to CCTV” and went on to conclude that these systems are oversold by governments as a magic bullet to address the crime problem. (SCAN pt.1,pp17). In a 2008 Guardian article entitled CCTVs don’t keep us safe, yet the cameras are everywhere multiple failings and abuses of CCTV are laid out.
The UK, to quote a conservative estimate, has over 1.5 million public cameras yet when only 3% of street robberies in London are solved using CCTV as a senior police detective has observed (SCAN pt.1,pp.7) you’d think that some sort of rational cost-benefit analysis might be in order to compare the utility of camera surveillance to other police investigative tactics. In the UK, over $500 million pounds or close to a billion dollars has been spent on camera surveillance in the past decade. Nobody knows the total cost to Canadians so far — the G20 cameras alone cost $1.2 million.
In practice however, cost-benefit arguments fall on deaf ears. Efficiency in solving crimes, though repeated as a mantra by police officials lobbying for additional funding has little to do with decisions to implement camera surveillance. Wade Deisman, a professor of policing, criminology, security and intelligence wrote in the SCAN report that “Decisions to avoid or embrace CCTV do not appear to hinge upon evidence that video surveillance is the ‘most effective strategy’ to respond to crime and/or disorder” (pt.1,pp26) but rather in the wake of 9/11 “’national security’ concerns increasingly underlie all discussions regarding crime detection and prevention” (ibid. pp.22). He points out that there’s now simply a culture of making unsupported claims about the efficacy of cameras, with deterrence, crime detection/resolution and an increased public perception of safety the main reasons cited in support of CCTV.
The wide availability of these and similar studies to professional criminologists and police policy advocates suggests something other than ignorance of the facts is at work.
For the launch of Toronto’s citywide 13-camera pilot project in 2007, a consultation with the public was announced via a press release, a posting on the Police Services website and notices distributed to community centers, banks, grocery stores, rinks, etc. Randy Lippert, Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Windsor wrote of these meetings that
After receiving a 2 million dollar provincial government grant, nine consultative meetings encouraged Toronto neighbourhood residents to inspect details of new temporary CCTV arrangements before implementation. However, few people actually attended these meetings about the CCTV pilot program. The twenty to fifty persons in attendance could hardly be seen as representative of the public. Now was there much of a consultation. It simply entailed a Powerpoint presentation by police. Moreover, once the pilot program began, cameras were moved to other neighbourhoods without any formal public consultation beforehand. (SCAN pt.1,pp.31)
A survey was distributed to participants and the results were tallied. Of the 131 responses fielded, 84% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “it would be okay to use CCTV cameras”, and the results of the survey were subsequently touted to justify deployment. (TPS Minutes, Mar 22 2007, pp.46)
However this survey can hardly be considered a rigorous snapshot of public opinion — 66% of the demographic surveyed was older than 46 (ibid. pp.59) and as observed in an analysis of surveillance opinion polls
Social scientists approach public opinion with strategies embedded in their questions which are meant to isolate factors, test prior knowledge of the subject, and make comparisons possible. Consequently, they tend to offer a much more detailed view of the various aspects of respondents’ attitudes. In general, these polls on camera surveillance also show significantly less support among respondents than media and professional polls (rarely above 65%).
The findings of these polls can be summarized as follows. First, both question order and wording can have powerful impacts on results. As Jason Ditton (2000) has observed, when questions about camera surveillance are preceded by statements or other questions referring to criminality and security, support for surveillance goes up by 20%. (SCAN report, pt.1,pp.44)
It appears that the Toronto Police Services survey was subject to precisely this form of manipulation, as it included three such questions prior to any mention of CCTV. The questions were 1. Are you concerned about the possibility that you or anyone else who lives with you might become a victim of crime? 2. What is your perception of safety in your neighbourhood at night? and 3) In your opinion, what is the crime issue in your neighbourhood? with Break and Enter/Property Theft, Vandalism, Fighting, and Drugs listed as the top four concerns. (TPS Minutes, Mar 22 2007, pp.52)
With members of the public already conditioned to believe that CCTV represents an effective deterrent and criminal prosecution tool in the absence of any evidence to that effect, clearly a survey is not an appropriate policy tool.
Be Seeing You
One notable early fictional portrayal of the surveillance society hit the small screen in 1967 when The Prisoner aired in Britain, a classic allegory of a controlled society in which conformity is rewarded and those who refuse to self-censor and conform in an environment of pervasive surveillance face a trip to hospital for ‘re-adjustment’ or worse. Social cohesion is enforced by Number 2, the keeper of secrets and the public face of administration in The Village as well as a cadre of unseen guardians watching the public through their camera eyes. But enforcement is also provided by fellow residents of The Village, who’ve become accustomed to acting as proxies for the secret police lest they, too, fall under suspicion. While the writing doesn’t shy away from depicting the complexities of individual integrity vs. egalitarian group-think, its sanitized, surreal environments and situations are uncomfortably reminiscent of our own sanitized suburbs and gated communities and suggests that much of the prison is found within.
Fiction and literature are useful here because they provide ways that enable us to look at the human condition with heightened clarity. History, too, provides ample precedent for the oppressive nature of surveillance. No discussion of surveillance would be complete without mention of Bentham’s Panopticon, a word meaning ‘all-seeing’. In the 16th century, Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a prison constructed around a central surveillance tower in which warders could observe the inmates, but inmates would never know if or when they were being observed. The French philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault described the effect of this Panopticon upon the mind in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975)
Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.
East Germany prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain provides another instructive example. Ongoing surveillance was conducted by a caste of secret police called the STASI. In 1989, just prior to the destruction of the Berlin Wall, over 91,000 people kept watch on a population of 16.4 million. While video cameras were typically used for hidden surveillance by police agents rather than in public view, the mere knowledge of the STASI’s infiltration of every aspect of East German society kept the population distrustful, isolated, and apart from the most dedicated activists the people were cowed and readily controlled by fear.
What is it about this sort of panoptical observation that provides so much power? Reflection suggests that there are two factors at work in the relationship between observer and observed. The observer, by the nature of the act, collects information. Information is knowledge, and knowledge is power. The observer wants… information.
Accompanying this is the more subtle dynamic of objectification. The observed, when they realize that they are the object of observation may feel self-conscious, and thus subordinate to the second viewpoint of the observer: an external force which they cannot control. This is what is so brilliant and horrifying about the Panopticon and mass social surveillance — it functions also as a means to exert psychological control.
Another French philosopher, the Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, knew something of this and wrote of ‘the Look‘ as the unsettling gaze of the Other in his greatest work, Being and Nothingness. The powerfully mythic Christian creation story, too, tells of Adam and Eve being ashamed when they eat of the Tree of Knowledge and come to know their nakedness before The Lord. And all but the smallest child attempts to hide, to avert their face from the parent’s gaze when they are shamed.
Subverting the Gaze: Restoring the Balance of Power
The question then must be, why don’t most (urban) Canadians seem to mind the gaze of the camera eye?
There are a few possible answers to this seeming paradox. Ignorance of the cameras is one obvious possibility. Focus groups conducted in Montreal made it clear that at least some respondents living in surveilled areas didn’t know cameras had been installed, and in any case a majority of residents couldn’t place cameras on a map or say whether they lived or worked in a camera’s field of view. (SCAN report, pt.1,pp.51)
Another possible explanation is education and conditioning. Cameras are not only ubiquitous, a commonplace in the media but
as the embodiment of the promise of high-tech protection and comfort, have become [viewed as] a universal positive. Any perceived flaws are explained in terms of improper or inadequate implementation or inefficient follow-up by police officers. (ibid.)
Another problem is the simplistic identification of personal privacy with intimacy and the functions of the body. Accordingly, citizens have difficulty identifying any privacy issues when they are under public surveillance since the areas in which surveillance is most commonly objected to are fitting rooms, washrooms, and the interiors and entrances of homes. In the conclusion of his contribution to the SCAN report, Stephane Leman-Langlois suggests that
Privacy might regain cogency if it were recast as a form of security. Within the various forms of security production, room should be left for the security of privacy. This can be done easily if privacy is conceived as a sum of information about persons, which should be protected. Arguments around camera systems would then revolve around the appropriateness, or equilibrium, of any distribution of protection resources among various objects: spaces, persons, and information (ibid.,pp.52)
This last point reflects George Radwanski’s thought about the ‘right not to be known against our will’. In a networked era, one in which many of us think nothing of offering up hundreds of pictures of ourselves or our children to Facebook and posterity, perhaps the best way to go about explaining this is with a variation of the famous libertarian “How Many Men” thought experiment.
How much information, and of what nature, would you be uncomfortable with the state collecting on you? Would your photo, collected once or twice a day without your full informed consent be too much? What if that photo was accompanied by identity information? What if this was cross referenced with images of your family, your employment status, back taxes, and any political groups you may be involved with? What if your image was taken multiple times a day and indexed to your physical location in the city, producing a record of your travels? All of this is possible using 21st century tracking technology — but is it desirable? How much is too much in the pursuit of some illusory, perfectly safe society?
Whose information is it anyways, and does your limited exposure of personal information by appearing in a public space — a fleeting sample of identity + location — imply your consent to collect and store it in a pervasive manner? It’s the principle of the thing that is at stake, and this is not a principle that it’s in our best interest to breach or degrade. To do so fundamentally upsets the balance of power between the individual and the state.
It may be that people don’t care, and will not respond to demand a rollback of the surveillance state’s control grid until its invisible walls have been constructed around us and the consequences of massively networked camera systems have become apparent. We lead busy lives and the marginal utility of fighting surveillance in the public sphere may be overwhelmed by the drain on personal resources it presently demands. But at some point the two sides of this equation could reach equality and demand action of even the most submissive ward of the surveillance society.
We’re not there yet, but things aren’t looking too good.
Major Works Cited
A Report on Camera Surveillance in Canada (Lyon, Lippert, Johnson, Deisman et al. 2009)
What’s Wrong With Fusion Centers? (ACLU 2008)
Home Office Research Study 292: Assessing the Impact of CCTV (Gill, Spriggs 2005)
Excerpt from Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Foucault 1975)