Use of body cams has serious privacy implications

February 19, 2015
Feb 18 2015 OTTAWA - The country's federal and provincial privacy watchdogs are urging police departments to ponder the risks to privacy before they start equipping officers with body-worn cameras. The federal privacy commissioner and privacy and personal information protection officials across the country have produced a guidance document on the subject. The document says police should consider whether the expected benefits from the use of such cameras outweigh the impact on privacy and personal information.

Feb 18 2015

OTTAWA - The country's federal and provincial privacy watchdogs are urging police departments to ponder the risks to privacy before they start equipping officers with body-worn cameras.

The federal privacy commissioner and privacy and personal information protection officials across the country have produced a guidance document on the subject.

The document says police should consider whether the expected benefits from the use of such cameras outweigh the impact on privacy and personal information.

"One of the questions we start with is whether or not it’s even necessary and effective in the first place," said Patricia Kosseim, director general of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

"We are not saying to do it, we’re certainly not saying not to do it, we’re saying hit the pause button and please consider carefully the various benefits but also the risks."

The document suggests that police assess the overall risks to privacy and consider using pilot projects before embracing the widespread use of such cameras.

Police should also make sure that people are informed when a camera program is introduced.

The guidelines also say people should be told when police are recording encounters.

There are a number of other concerns addressed by the privacy watchdogs. For instance, they say recordings should be safeguarded with measures such as encryption, restricted access and strict retention periods.

There should be policies and procedures to address issues such as accountability, employee training and the handling of requests by individuals for access to recordings.

And the rules for using cameras should minimize the recording of innocent bystanders and innocuous interactions between police and public.

"We believe that addressing privacy considerations from the outset can allow an appropriate balance to be achieved between the needs of law enforcement and the privacy rights of individuals,'' the documents say.

Privacy officials say it's an important debate.

"There are clearly benefits to the use of body-worn cameras; however, there are also significant privacy implications,'' said Daniel Therrien, the federal privacy commissioner.

"Given this, and as more and more policing organizations consider adopting this technology, we are encouraging them to address those privacy issues upfront to ensure they strike the right balance between law enforcement needs and the privacy rights of Canadians.''

Brian Beamish, Ontario's acting information and privacy commissioner, said the guidance provided will give police a better understanding of the privacy considerations surrounding the issue.

"Law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to implement body-worn cameras in a manner that respects privacy and complies with the law,'' he said.

Body cameras are seen as an important tool for gathering evidence, but there are also suggestions that their use might reduce the number of public complaints about police behaviour and reduce the use of force by officers.

Proponents say the cameras boost police accountability and capture vital information to help prosecute crime. The preeminent study, examining the police force in Rialto, Calif., found the cameras produced significant declines in the use of force and in public complaints against officers.

But the privacy commissioners’ guidelines point to many concerns, including whether recordings will be made in private homes, if citizens will be informed they are being captured on video, and whether police forces will adequately protect private information caught on camera.

Tom Stamatakis, President of the Canadian Police Association, said the guidelines may help temper what he views as a "rush to adopt the technology," despite there still being questions among many officers about its efficacy.

From members participating in pilot projects, he has heard feedback ranging from officers’ own privacy concerns, to complaints the cameras adversely affect interactions with community members.

In certain circumstances, some officers may be pressured to divert members of the public from entering the criminal the justice system, and they use their discretion not to lay a charge in spite of having incriminating evidence. Stamatakis says some officers worry they will later be criticized for such decisions.

(Canadian Press, Toronto Star)

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