Winnipeg Free Press
(Winnipeg, MB, Canada
12 Nov 2002

Police stir privacy fears with security video on Net

By Bruce Owen

Winnipeg police are using the World Wide Web to post surveillance-camera footage of suspected criminals filmed in the act, a tactic that raises concerns about the legal rights of people whose images are displayed without their consent.

Since May, police have posted pictures of people caught on video as they allegedly rob convenience stores, gas bars and banks. Others apparently rob cabbies, steal cars, rip off computer equipment or defraud banks at ATMs.

Investigators hope on-line visitors will identify the suspects and help police solve crimes.

The photographs vary in quality depending on the security system, but the concept got a big boost this year when a new development in software let police enhance the quality of poor footage.

The photographs vary in quality depending on the security system, but the concept got a big boost this year when a new development in software let police enhance the quality of poor footage.

Several images on the police site were taken from the inside of city taxis by recently installed interior security cameras. Provincial Ombudsman Barry Tuckett is currently looking at whether the cab cameras are being used properly under the Privacy Act. The only other police service in Canada that does anything similar is Montreal's, which focuses more on posting still photographs of the faces of wanted criminals, not surveillance images showing crimes in progress.

Most U.S. police forces also post only still photographs of faces.

The cutting-edge approach by Winnipeg police highlights how the use of technology by police has outpaced Canada's privacy laws, especially in a post-Sept. 11, 2001 world where security concerns threaten individual rights.

Some local legal experts say giving Internet exposure to surveillance-camera footage of suspected criminals comes close to violating Canada's privacy laws. Others say it's a good tool to make the community safer.

"The laws are supposed to strike a balance, but they need to do so by respecting the applicable privacy legislation," Winnipeg privacy law expert Brian Bowman said.

"Video surveillance strikes a chord with people on both sides of the debate today." Law may evolve

Bowman said the law may evolve to the point where people must consent to being taped by a security camera. An argument can be made that even criminals have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Others say Winnipeg police are just doing good law enforcement.

"It's a matter of public interest, that public interest being the detection of crime," University of Manitoba law professor David Deutscher said.

Deutscher said that as long as police are acting in good faith, an argument can't successfully be made that the posting of pictures hurts a suspect's right to a fair trial.

Bowman said how police use security tape will eventually be settled by the Supreme Court of Canada.

"We do need guidance on this," he said.

He referred to Canadian privacy commissioner George Radwanski's Charter challenge against the RCMP and its use of a surveillance camera in Kelowna, B.C. Radwanski has said that camera violates the country's Privacy Act, because it records the actions of thousands of people in a public area without there being any reasonable grounds that a criminal act is occurring.

In Winnipeg, the law is less clear. The cameras have mostly captured criminal acts in private businesses where the public attends, so the expectation of privacy is lessened -- somewhat.

But by posting the video on their Web site, police are essentially accusing the filmed people of crimes, which could lead to defamation claims if it's shown that these people are innocent.

That happened earlier this year when an unspecified bank gave police the wrong pictures of a person the bank said had cashed two stolen cheques, according to a report released last June 28 by the privacy commissioner.

Radwanski said police gave the pictures to Crime Stoppers, which forwarded them to an unnamed newspaper for use in an article.

Radwanski found the bank had violated the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act and its requirement that banks supply only accurate personal information to police.

Make every effort Bowman said that under new privacy laws that take effect Jan. 1, 2004, all private businesses in Canada, from cab companies to corner convenience stores, will have to make every effort to ensure the personal information they supply to authorities, such as videotape, is accurate.

Winnipeg police have not yet publicly promoted their new tool, although it's already helped officers make several arrests. (The Web address is:

"It is working for us," homicide-major crime Staff Sgt. Al Scott said. "As our system becomes more known among the officers, we'll get more on it and get more results."

Scott said the criteria for putting a suspect's photo on the Internet is whether extreme violence was used during the crime or whether the victim suffered a substantial loss.

"There has to be something that sets it apart," he said.

What also helps is whether police video forensic experts are able to get a good, recognizable image off a surveillance tape.

They're using the latest software that lets police decode multiplexed images, turn time-lapse video into real time, stabilize unsteady surveillance video, track images of a suspect in a large crowd and pull readable licence plate numbers from dark areas.

Police got the new software -- called the Avid system -- earlier this year after investigators found themselves seizing more and more video evidence from different crime scenes. In major cities such as Winnipeg, the average person is captured on video eight to 12 times a day at gas bars, parking lots, shopping malls and ATMs.

The use of video surveillance is likely to increase as authorities try to protect people from terrorist attacks.

See current pics of robbers caught on in-cab cameras in Winnipeg, Canada:

Person wanted for breaking into a taxicab and destroying the in-cab camera.

Person wanted for robbing a taxi driver.

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