Ifill and Kishek: Video surveillance in the ByWard Market would hurt us all – and mostly target minorities

    Jul 12, 2019

    The ByWard Market has been the site of a number of recent violent incidents, including the death of a young black man on Canada Day.

    In the typical knee-jerk reaction of the law-and-order crowd, the proposed solution to reducing crime is not to invest in preventative measures, such as increased funding to social programs for those in vulnerable situations, but to introduce state surveillance as a way of making people feel safe.

    Well, not everyone feels safe with surveillance – and they have good reason not to.

    In a recent memo to the city manager, Mayor Jim Watson asked for a feasibility study of a pilot program to install CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras in the market in order to “improve the ability of @OttawaPolice to respond to crime and to contribute to the safe environment of the downtown areas.”

    Or at least that’s what the mayor thinks CCTV will do.

    In the typical knee-jerk reaction of the law-and-order crowd, the proposed solution to reducing crime is not to invest in preventative measures, such as increased funding to social programs, but to introduce state surveillance.

    A proper study of CCTV will show that there is no evidence linking CCTV to a reduction in violent crime. Countless jurisdictions across the United States and the United Kingdom with CCTV have said openly that it is an ineffective and costly surveillance tool, and fails to deter criminal activity.

    But whether it reduces crime is irrelevant, because the harms to civil liberties are so great, they far outweigh the illusory benefits.

    Monitoring and surveillance cause harm to human dignity by eroding privacy – our right to be free from undue state scrutiny, and an essential component of individual freedom. Privacy rights extend to public spaces. CCTV, for example, will acutely infringe on the privacy of those who reside in or frequent public spaces, namely our neighbours who are homeless or under-housed.

    There are also legitimate concerns that the presence of state surveillance limits freedom of expression and association. People will be less likely to engage in demonstrations, express dissent in public spaces, or gather and rally together, thereby restricting political freedoms. Surely we’ve all read enough dystopian novels to anticipate this ill effect.

    Investigators collect evidence after a homicide occurred along Dalhousie Street in the ByWard Market on the Canada Day weekend.

    And what about the oversight for the storage and collection of data produced from CCTV? Data-sharing among domestic and international law enforcement agencies without the consent or knowledge of the subject is a threat to the freedom of movement for those who have never been suspected of a crime, much less those who have been. If you’re darker than a No. 2 pencil and have flown in recent years, you know how terrifying this prospect can be.

    For those who have the temerity to argue that if you didn’t do anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about, here’s some food for thought: An investigation into anyone suspected of a crime can tear a life apart, even if the person is found innocent.

    There are other applications of the surveillance footage we should be similarly wary of. Facial recognition is a process by which a face in a captured image or video frame is compared to those in an existing database for a match. This automated process allows not only for identification, but for tracking individuals on a mass scale.

    And given the grave propensity of this software to misidentify women, transgender and people of colour, this technology has the capability to discriminate with greater precision and effectiveness and at higher volumes than previously seen before. And there is minimal recourse. San Francisco recently banned its use, citing the automation of these biases and the risks to privacy; the California legislature banned biometric surveillance in police video cameras for the same reasons.

    These issues are only scratching the surface of how CCTV will affect the lives of everyone who lives, works and plays in the ByWard Market. However, instead of looking at the impacts on Ottawa residents as a whole, the mayor is capitulating to the comfort of a predominantly white, suburban base at the expense of the civil liberties of lower-income people and racial and religious minorities.

    And given that Ottawa Police have had trouble respecting civil liberties, are we sure that forfeiting them would be a reasonable sacrifice for something that the interim police chief, Steve Bell, believes will only help solve crimes and not prevent them?

    Amy Kishek and Erica Ifill are co-hosts of the Ottawa-based Bad+Bitchy Podcast.