Monday, January 10, 2011

Privacy Concerns Delay Cameras on Buses

You should practise smiling on the bus — Grand River Transit still intends to install surveillance cameras on its buses, later this year.

The cameras, now common in transit systems, are meant to deter crime and enhance security. But the transit service has delayed activating them, after critics complained that regional council never consulted the public and has no surveillance policy, saying who can view recordings and how long images are kept.

Following guidelines from Ontario’s privacy commissioner, the transit service will hold consultations and draft policies “in recognition of the concerns that are being brought forward around privacy,” director Eric Gillespie said.

“They’re now proposing public consultation, somewhat after the fact,” said Coun. Sean Strickland, an opponent of cameras on buses. “But at least the public consultation is going to take place.”

“It’s unfortunate that this hasn’t happened earlier and that we’re just getting to this stage so late in the process,” said transit passenger Kate Daley, of Waterloo. “I think it’s still important to do those consultations.”

Daley complained to council about its failure to consult and develop clear policies. She’s concerned that people not become complacent about surveillance.

Local taxpayers are spending $1.4 million to equip buses with cameras. Council approved them in part after the federal government helped pay for a secret report on transit security risks.

Local transit terminals already aim cameras at public areas. Drivers expect bus cameras, which will not be aimed at them, will dissuade passengers from harassing drivers and will help investigators find culprits.

“I’m mind-boggled by the privacy concerns, quite frankly,” said union chief Rick Lonergan, who represents drivers with the Canadian Auto Workers. He’s frustrated by the delay and points out cameras are everywhere.

Strickland accepts that surveillance is widespread but is not persuaded buses need cameras.

“If I get on a bus, and I’m paying my fee, and I’m riding the bus, and I’m getting photographed by a camera, my first inclination is, why does some government, some person somewhere, need to take my picture when I’m going about my business riding a bus?” he said.

“I think we need to put in place stringent guidelines around how private information is taken, obtained, stored and used by governments.”

Gillespie said the transit service intends to develop policies in line with provincial guidelines. These include erasing recorded information within 72 hours, if it has not been viewed for law enforcement or public safety reasons.

“I think it’s critical to have those policies in place before the cameras go live,” said Brian Beamish, an assistant commissioner with the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.

Commissioner Ann Cavoukian has said cameras on buses are OK if the case is made that they enhance security and they operate in a way that respects privacy.

Nonfunctioning cameras installed on 15 buses will not be activated for now, Gillespie said. He expects cameras could start recording in the spring, after consultations in the coming months. “We’re still very committed to the plan,” he said.