“I’ll Be Watching You”

By on June 29th, 2017 in Magazine Articles, Privacy & Security

Anecdotally, most people know that the video technology they use in everyday life is changing at an alarmingly fast pace. Individuals recognize that the televisions they watch and the cameras they purchase are of increasingly higher quality, versatility, and integrated with computing technologies. However, the same individuals who purchase and use these technologies do not often think about what this means in connection with the technologies used to watch and record them. Most are similarly unaware of the networked infrastructures that may connect and add new functionality to the video surveillance systems that are collecting and using their personal information on a daily basis.

Most are unaware of the networked infrastructures that may connect and add new functionality to the video surveillance systems that are collecting and using their personal information on a daily basis.

There is relatively little academic research that assesses the current level of public knowledge about video surveillance technologies and practices in North America. Furthermore, previous work conducted by members of our research group determined that private-sector compliance with video surveillance privacy regulation is poor [2]. We believe this makes it particularly important to explore what citizens know and what they need to know about video surveillance technologies, in order to provide them with the information and tools they need to engage with the organizations that collect and use their personal information via surveillance. Our ultimate research goal is to provide information and tools to help members of the public understand video surveillance technologies and the ways they are changing. We also strive to help citizens engage thoughtfully with organizations engaged in surveillance, and with government policy makers and the policies that regulate this surveillance. We seek to find ways to make surveillance infrastructure issues vivid and concrete, to make tangible artifacts that people can use to open up the technologies, organizational practices, and built-in assumptions that are most often hidden from public view. The issues highlighted in our work include privacy, individual control over personal information, and the potential for citizens to hold organizations to account for protecting both of these important values.

Our research addresses these goals using two distinct but related approaches: qualitative research to examine the current state of awareness that Canadians have about video surveillance, and participatory design-inspired prototyping work to develop effective tools to help citizens document surveillance installations in their local environment. This article reports on the results of both of these approaches.

How can we promote awareness, consent, compliance, and accountability in video surveillance?

We begin by discussing findings from our qualitative study of Canadian’s attitudes towards, and awareness of, video surveillance. We conducted on-the-street interviews with Canadians in an attempt to understand what people living in a Canadian urban center understand about video surveillance systems and privacy regulation. We then turned to our second, participatory design-oriented approach, which attempts to respond to people’s concerns and information needs regarding video surveillance by developing a tool for individuals called the SurveillanceWatch app. This app uses a crowdsourcing approach to allow people to map sites of surveillance and record their compliance with privacy regulations. The design and nature of this app is discussed in the second section of this paper. We will conclude by integrating discussions of these two research approaches and highlighting the key contributions of this work.

What do Canadians Know or Want to Know about Video Surveillance?

Video surveillance is becoming ubiquitous in both private and public spaces in our increasingly (in)security-conscious society. Although we recognize the familiar look of camera housings on walls or ceilings, the capabilities of video surveillance technologies have grown and evolved over the past decade. As we move from analog to digital video on networked systems, we see the potential for an intensive gaze on citizens in the name of security. The move to digital processing also raises the possibility that the visual image data collected might soon be turned into actionable information. This would occur either in real time or retrospectively through analysis of recorded aggregate data. Armed with object recognition, face tracking, and face recognition, visual surveillance will soon have the potential to become a portal into our lives in both physical and digital spaces, tying our online “faces” to our physical ones. Significantly, “this conversion from image data to information continues silently behind the lenses of surveillance equipment generally unseen by the surveillance subject” [9].

Research conducted primarily in the U.K., but also in Australia and Canada, tells us that people generally have a high degree of acceptance for video surveillance. For example, public opinion surveys by media outlets consistently find high levels of citizen support for camera surveillance [5]. However, these surveys are generally conducted after some significant security-related event where cameras have either played a role, or it is supposed they would have played a role had they been present [14]. More rigorously designed surveys conducted by social scientists tend to find slightly less support for camera surveillance, and show that the location of the surveillance [14], the demographic group to which the respondent belongs [7], [15], and even the ways in which questions are framed [7] affect the degree to which people are willing to support camera surveillance. These studies also find that although about one third of respondents will agree that camera surveillance is a privacy threat, for many of the 33%, it is still seen as acceptable because of a perception that it might improve safety or security [27].

The video surveillance landscape in Canada differs somewhat from that of other jurisdictions where research has taken place. Most Canadian surveillance cameras are not part of publicly supported infrastructures. Instead, the majority of cameras pointed at publicly accessible spaces are commercially run and operated. These commercial operators fall under the PIPEDA (Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act) provisions for informing individuals about the nature of video surveillance, and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has issued guidelines for organizations using surveillance cameras [20]. However, it seems as though there is little compliance with even the basic guidelines regarding notification about the purpose of surveillance or potential uses of the personal information collected [2].

When we consider all of these issues; rapidly evolving and potentially intrusive technologies, lack of public awareness, and organizational non-compliance with privacy guidelines, in combination with the principle expressed in the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s (OPC) Guidelines for Overt Video Surveillance [8], that individuals have “the right to lead their lives free from scrutiny,” it raises some significant questions. The unmitigated growth of video surveillance, in both scope and nature, is encroaching on any form of reasonable control that a data subject may have over their personal information. The use and possible linkage of visually identifiable information is an issue that should concern us all.

The use and possible linkage of visual identifiable information is an issue that should concern us all.

However, does the public realize there is a need for concern? As researchers who are fully aware of the information policy in general and privacy in particular, we assume that these issues are significant. People may not know what can be done with their captured visual images, or what their rights are, in relation to, personally identifiable information gathered by video surveillance systems. Similarly, Canadians’ level of knowledge about current video surveillance capabilities, and the way the technology is developing in the near future remains unclear. As information researchers and privacy advocates, we are working to understand the policy implications of emerging “intelligent” video surveillance, but what we do not know is whether Canadians are concerned about these developments. More significantly, we do not know whether they have enough information to develop an informed opinion. Therefore, our ongoing project seeks to establish and expose more clearly the current degree of general knowledge Canadian citizens have about video surveillance technologies, their attitudes, and their understanding of relevant privacy regulations.

In Situ Interviewing

Our research takes a small step in the direction of this larger goal exploring the opinions and concerns of citizens in one large Canadian urban center. To find out what Canadians know about visual surveillance practices and technologies, we conducted semi-structured “man and woman on the street” interviews. The questions focused on determining what people know about the video surveillance activities that are capturing their personal visual information, asking what they think about public video surveillance, and determining what they know about their privacy rights regarding such surveillance. We sought to understand the extent to which people recognize visual information as personal information, and the degree to which they are informed, or care to be informed, about the practices relating to visual information collected via video monitoring.

We conducted 156 interviews in various urban locations where the presence of private surveillance cameras in a public space is somewhat obvious. The cameras are either visible to the public or there are notification signs posted, or a combination of both. These sites are in the vicinity of major intersections, public squares, and community centres. It was our hope that by situating the conversations with participants in sites where the cameras can be seen and discussed as a concrete presence, people might be encouraged to think about and answer the questions.

We based our core questions broadly on the OPC’s March, 2008, Guidelines for Overt Video Surveillance in the Private Sector, modified to reflect our focus on the surveilled rather than the surveillers:

  • Did you know that this organization conducts video surveillance?
  • Why do you think this organization conducts video surveillance?
  • Did you notice any signs or announcements that video surveillance is taking place?
  • What do you think the organization does with the visual images of you and others that it collects? What should they do with them?
  • Does it concern you that you are being recorded? If yes, what are those concerns? If no, why do you feel comfortable with it?
  • Would you ever want to access video information about yourself? How might you try to do that?
  • Do you think video surveillance benefits you as a [shopper/citizen/member of the public]?


Our interview participants are Canadian citizens who range in age from 19 to 65, with education levels from high school to post-graduate degrees. They are engaged in a variety of occupations including law enforcement, education, child-care, engineering, construction, and sales. While our participants represent a broad range of socioeconomic and demographic categories, our sample was not representative of all Canadians, nor does our data allow for a subtle examination of the effects that personal life histories, such as differing home countries or length of time as Canadian citizens, might have on individual perspectives about surveillance. Rather, it is a snapshot of the opinions of those individuals willing to speak briefly with our interviewers in a particular Canadian city. Further research of greater breadth and depth, reflecting other geographic areas in both urban and rural settings, would be required to truly represent a Canadian perspective.

Our findings fall broadly into three categories: general awareness and perceptions of video surveillance, knowledge and opinion of privacy regulation relating to video surveillance, and information needs regarding video surveillance.

General Awareness and Perceptions of Surveillance

People are generally aware that they are often under surveillance in public spaces.

When asked, the majority of our participants told us that they are aware that they are often under camera surveillance when going about their daily lives in public spaces. They are aware that their actions might be caught on a camera when walking through a mall or even down a street. When asked why they think organizations are using video surveillance, most state that they don’t know the specific purpose beyond a general perception of its use “for safety” or “for security and stuff.” When we query what participants mean by the concept of safety in relation to video surveillance, it usually related to their perception that having cameras equates to someone watching, and this leads to an assumption that in the surveilled areas, crimes are less likely to occur. As one participant stated, “I think it stops people from doing bad things, I mean someone is watching you and you can tell there’s going to be consequences.” Although relevant, this assumption is potentially problematic for citizens. We know from other’s research that cameras have not proven particularly effective at deterring crime, so it is not necessarily a valid assumption that it will, in fact, “stop people from doing bad things” (see for example, [8], [10]).

Comments such as this also indicate that it is generally unclear to citizens whether cameras are monitored live. In fact, in many locations, no one may actually be watching at any given moment, and other locations have no live monitoring at all. Sometimes participants coupled their belief that someone was watching live with the erroneous expectation that if trouble occurs, help will be dispatched. “If something happens to me, I assume there is someone at the other end of the camera looking at things and is willing to send help if needed.” When asked whether cameras in the area make them feel safer, participants had varying opinions ranging from “What is a camera going to do if I get mugged?” to “I feel indifferent” to “if something is being recorded I feel safe knowing someone will or is able to see what will occur.” More than half of the people asked these questions yet stated they felt safer in the presence of video surveillance.

Participants also talked about the use of cameras for security. By raising this question, it seems they were referring to the use of surveillance footage in order to investigate crime, identify, and then prosecute criminals. Most thought that cameras were useful for this purpose and were also generally supportive of privately-collected information being given to police. However, they were more divided when asked whether a warrant should be required to obtain this information. Participants were similarly divided in their perceptions about the personal benefit they might receive from video surveillance, but were somewhat unified in the opinion that there was some public benefit. As one person stated, “if that video surveillance helps the police or companies to apprehend criminals then I think that benefits me.”

Knowledge and Opinion of Privacy Regulation

When we asked people questions about their knowledge of privacy regulation for video surveillance, we found an interesting result. Relatively few participants stated that they knew that there were privacy regulations relating to video surveillance, and even fewer knew what those regulations were. However, almost everyone who was asked stated that they felt this type of surveillance should be covered by regulation, and many said they assumed that it was. Participants generally noted that they wished to know whether an organization was compliant with privacy regulation, and some also wished to know if an organization had ever had a complaint filed against them or had been found in violation of privacy obligations.

The primary means by which organizations inform citizens about the presence of video surveillance is by posting signs, so we asked our participants if they had noticed signs about the video surveillance in the areas where interviews took place. Few had noticed signs in our interview locations, but many mentioned seeing signs on commercial premises when they entered. These signs stated that they are being monitored by video camera “for [their] safety” or possibly “for theft prevention.” Most believed that the signs were of the appropriate means to inform them about the presence of surveillance, although some were critical of the content and visibility of signs they had seen in the past. Some participants specifically mentioned issues with signage location and size stating “I have seen small miniscule signs under those set of stairs” while others describe the content as “incredibly vague.”

In general, although there was a lack of information about the existence and nature of privacy regulation around video surveillance, there was a clear agreement among participants that this kind of surveillance should be regulated, and that it is important for organizations to comply with whatever privacy regulation might exist.

Information Needs and Wants

Does the public realize there is a need for concern?

When the participants were asked what they would like to know about camera surveillance and the way it is regulated, most participants stated that they would like to know where surveillance is taking place asking questions such as “what area is under surveillance?” and “what is the reasoning?” for conducting the surveillance. Additionally, there was some interest in knowing more about specific organizational policies around surveillance, particularly in terms of retention policies, meaning how images were stored, how long they were kept, and who had access to their personal information that was being collected. A smaller portion of participants were also inquiring about how to contact the owner or operator of the surveillance cameras.

Amid the participant’s inquiries, there was also a clear sense of what qualifies as a legitimate use of surveillance data, such as in identifying a thief, and what participants felt were illegitimate uses. In particular, participants often uncomfortable with the idea that surveillance cameras might be used for customer tracking or profiling in retail outlets, or for citizen profiling more generally in public settings. All agreed that they would like to know if they were subject to surveillance for the purpose of these kinds of social sorting activities.

While our findings are limited in generalizability by our small sample-size and single city site, some themes did emerge from our interviews. Our findings point to a need for public education about the ways camera surveillance are used and can be used. The findings also shed light on both the advantages and disadvantages of camera surveillance, and about the current set of regulations that provide citizens with rights to their personal visual information.

To this end, a public forum was also held as part of this project to contribute to public knowledge about these issues. In an ongoing and iterative fashion, the information we have learned from our participants about their opinions and information needs regarding video surveillance has also been used to inform our participatory design efforts. We will now turn to a discussion of the challenges, motivations, and rationale for designing the SurveillanceWatch application, and describe the prototype.

Crowd-Sourcing the Public Display

Private Sector Privacy Non-Compliance and Public Ignorance

The troubling disjunction between the widespread privacy non-compliance of private sector video surveillance operations [2] and the similarly widespread lack of knowledge among surveilled subjects who desire more information and greater legal compliance, poses a significant challenge for those concerned for civil liberties and information rights. What are the appropriate responses when the conventional mechanisms of liberal democratic governance have so far demonstrably failed?

Canadian privacy law as applied to the private sector is unusual in being based originally on an attempt at self-regulation. The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) in 1996 issued the Model Code for the Protection of Personal Information following a consensus process with strong industry involvement. In part reflecting the subsequent lack of voluntary adoption, the Model Code’s 10 principles of fair information practice were incorporated verbatim in the Personal Information Protection and Electronics Documents Act (PIPEDA), the federal privacy legislation that has regulated personal information handling in commercial activities since 2000.

Little is done to provide sustained and systematic coverage of privacy threats and remedies.

Even with the force of law, compliance is weak. Canada’s Privacy Commissioners are charged with enforcing the law, but because it follows a complaint-based model, it requires citizens to file a formal complaint against specific alleged violators, which involves a protracted process that few people know about and even fewer are willing to pursue except in exceptional cases. The federal Privacy Commissioner’s office can conduct independent audits, but its resources are stretched thin and it is generally regarded as “toothless.” It can’t write binding orders nor impose fines. Even when companies are found at fault, they can appeal to the courts and in any case there are no financial penalties. The news media, and investigative journalism in particular, are also regarded as playing an important role in informing citizens and holding powerful institution accountable. However, beyond frequent reporting of data breaches and other scandals du jour, little is done to provide sustained and systematic coverage of privacy threats and remedies.

Documenting (Non) Compliance

While few argue for abandoning the legal apparatus, arms-length regulatory bodies, and an independent media for correcting the shortcomings of contemporary governance, in the area of video surveillance, these conventional mechanisms are clearly inadequate in the task of protecting the public interest. Indeed, this is recognized as a widespread characteristic of the prevailing neoliberal political/economic order [13]. One form of increasingly popular response to this perceived crisis of liberal democratic governance that takes advantage of the growing ubiquity of digital “social” media, is citizens individually and in ad hoc networks, taking on the tasks of holding powerful organizations to account [1].

Given the importance of surveillance in the exercise of power, an appealing accountability tactic is that of “counter-surveillance,” which Gary Marx characterizes as a form of “surveillance neutralization” involving “role reversal as subjects apply the tactics to agents taking advantage of the double edged potential of tools” [17]. However, this form of surveillance often eschews the covert aspects of conventional surveillance that are seen as especially problematic. In conducting their surveillance openly and transparently “…counter-surveillance tacticians seek to disrupt…trends in the privatization, sanitation, and elimination of that which is ‘public’” [18].

As we will see next, counter-surveillance often begins with the basic act of documenting surveillance operations, thereby drawing attention to their presence.

Other Examples of Public Accountability Tools

Counter-surveillance tactics such as reversing the photographic gaze, performance art, and installation mapping have been used by artists, activists, and academics to publicly “out” or reveal video surveillance for a number of years. For his Shooting Back video project, Steve Mann questioned front-line staff about the surveillance practices of their workplace, and then confronted them with his own video camera [16]. The Surveillance Camera Players in New York City, founded in 1996, stage public performances directed at surveillance cameras [23]. These performances acknowledge and highlight the security apparatus and often engender a very public and physical intervention from security personnel [18]. Also in New York, the Institute for Applied Autonomy’s iSee project is a web-based application, which allows users to map out a “path of least surveillance” [11] based on a database of known surveillance cameras in Manhattan.

Another effort to publicize the presence of surveillance cameras occurred in Canada, prior to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN) and Simon Fraser University developed, with a team of volunteers, a map indicating the location of 1500 surveillance cameras in the city’s downtown area [26].

More recently, the proliferation of mobile-computing devices and small personal cameras has made crowd-sourcing a viable approach to on-the-spot counter-surveillance, where members of the public are empowered and encouraged to report on events and issues that matter to them as they happen. Some current counter-surveillance resources include toolkits for documenting environmental concerns [21], monitoring police behavior [19], and reporting on the state of public infrastructure [22]. Ushahidi, which emerged as a tool to track post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, has evolved into a platform which allows individuals and organizations to create their own crowd-sourcing applications, with a focus on “democratizing information, increasing transparency, and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories” [25].1

Organizations have a responsibility to develop clear policies and must be accountable.

SurveillanceWatch is inspired by the mapping and crowd-sourcing approaches outlined above, but is distinctive in that it goes beyond simply drawing attention to the existence of surveillance cameras. We broaden the focus to video surveillance installations, including signage, ownership, and regulatory compliance. In conjunction with this, we provide information about the prevailing legal requirements and how they apply to particular installations.

Aims and Scope of the Surveillancewatch APP

The over-arching goal of the SurveillanceWatch project is to make video surveillance in the private sector and the related privacy issues more transparent, understandable, and accountable to Canadians. In particular, the key objectives of the project include:

  1. To increase public understanding of the extent and nature of video surveillance in their daily lives.
  2. To document the extent of private sector video surveillance and privacy compliance in selected urban areas and industry sectors.
  3. To highlight the largest video surveillance owners/operators that are not compliant with privacy law, making them subject to public pressure.
  4. To highlight those video surveillance owners/operators who are most compliant with privacy law.

We seek to accomplish this by developing an easy-to-use Smartphone app that individuals can use to take photos of cameras and signs of video surveillance installations, and upload these to a shared database with tags to indicate key privacy features of the installation. The app is designed to allow users to view the location and privacy compliance of installations in their immediate vicinity, or anywhere in the world.

Current Prototype

The following section discusses design choices made to engage and empower citizens interested in video surveillance. SurveillanceWatch was originally conceived as an app for the Android Market. However, as we started development, we chose to also make it as a web application in order to reach a broader audience. The current version of SurveillanceWatch may be run as a native Android app, or it may be launched in a browser on computers and mobile devices.

The app makes it easy for a person to identify nearby video-surveillance installations. The SurveillanceWatch home page shows a map displaying pins at the location of all known installations in the user’s vicinity (see Fig. 1).


View All

The pins are color-coded to indicate their compliance (or non-compliance) with legal signage requirements, namely showing that video surveillance operators must post signage notifying passersby of the presence, nature, and scope of any surveillance installation. A red pin means that no sign was observed and that the installation is non-compliant with Canadian privacy regulation. A yellow pin indicates a sign was observed but that it was lacking information required for “minimal compliance,” while a green and yellow striped pin identifies installations that achieve “minimal compliance” signage requirements. These requirements include high visibility, a clear indication of the installation’s owner and operator, a description of why the area is under serveillance, and a description of the installation’s properties. This indicates whether images are monitored or recorded, contact information for the individual responsible for protecting personal information captured by the cameras, as well as a reference to the legislation that governs the handling of this information. Finally, a green pin is reserved for installations that go significantly beyond the minimum necessary and demonstrate compliance with the “spirit” of Canadian privacy regulations. The color-coding aims to provide the user with a sophisticated layering of information that is at the same time easy to access and understand.

When an individual notices a video surveillance installation that is not already represented in SurveillanceWatch, they may launch the app and add a new “report,” thereby engaging in an act of counter-surveillance (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Report screen.



Each report includes a name and description of the installation’s owner, the location where the pin should be placed (an installation which has multiple cameras may in fact cover several hundred square meters), and whether or not a surveillance notification sign was clearly visible. Users may also upload photographs of the site, report on the number of cameras they have counted for this installation, describe the spaces those cameras are pointed at (e.g. whether they are pointed at the interior or exterior of a building), and log a variety of characteristics of the notification sign (if one exists), such as its relative visibility, its stated purpose and properties, and the text of the sign (Fig. 3).


Fig. 3. Documenting the purpose(s) and properties of surveillance.


The use of a map grants individuals insight into the ubiquity of video surveillance cameras in certain public spaces. For example, the SurveillanceWatch map reveals six video surveillance installations (and seven unique cameras, as one of the installations has two cameras) covering a 150 m stretch of Bloor St. West in Toronto (from Walmer Road to Spadina Road) (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Cameras on Bloor St. West in Toronto.


All seven of the cameras are pointed at outdoor space, and four of them are pointed directly at the sidewalk. This area sees substantial pedestrian traffic and many hundreds of individuals may have their personal information captured by these installations every day. As three of these installations exhibited no signage, and the cameras are relatively unobtrusive, the majority of passersby are likely not aware that they are within range of some of these video surveillance cameras.

If a user wishes to learn more about the video surveillance installations revealed through the SurveillanceWatch interface, they can access more detail by tapping on the installation’s pin and then on the owner’s name (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Details screen.

If they notice any missing or inaccurate information, they may edit the installation’s details. The “Details” screen is also a launch point for further information about “compliance,” such as how it is evaluated and assigned (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Details about compliance.



Finally, the SurveillanceWatch “list view” provides users with an alternate view of the data. This is sorted by owner name and thus allows individuals to browse for a particular owner, or to quickly compare different implementations of a chain or franchise. For example, does one coffee shop have a better privacy record than another coffee shop down the street, and will this knowledge impact consumer decision-making? (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7. List view.

The Prototype in Use

Although the app is still being developed, and we have not attempted to “launch” it in any concerted way, it is already gaining exposure through media coverage and public attention. The mobile app has had 1560 person visits, and the website has attracted 2386 unique visits. The database of user-generated entries is beginning to be populated with 240 installations documented thus far. The initial reaction to this app from journalists and users confirms that we are touching on issues of concern, and that individuals are gaining awareness of the extent of video surveillance, how it affects them, and what rights they have.

Individuals are gaining awareness as to the extent of video surveillance.

One potential issue that may arise for individuals using the app is that, in our increasingly security-conscious society, institutions and organizations are often protective about the nature of their surveillance systems. Members of the research team have found that taking pictures of surveillance cameras is strongly discouraged by organizational staff or security personnel, and citizens using the app are likely to have similar experiences. There may also be the possibility, particularly at times when concern over terrorism is elevated, that users who are recorded by the cameras they are photographing might experience consequences. This would occur if those monitoring the surveillance data deem their actions suspicious. We do not know the degree to which users might consider these possibilities and be deterred from using the app. Another potential concern that users might have is the degree to which the app itself is privacy compliant. Users can access the app’s privacy policy as the first item in the menu from the opening screen. As the app is part of a University project, the Ontario Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) applies, and our information collection practices are based on that Act. One potential issue that has emerged in the beta is that, while corporate names and addresses are considered public information as per section 2.3 of the Act, we have also had a small number of submissions regarding private citizen’s home cameras. Ways to discourage the submission of this information and to prevent it from appearing in the application are being developed.

Despite these potential user concerns, we anticipate that as the app becomes further known and the database of installations grows, a resource for users will become available, allowing individuals to learn more about the surveillance around them. It is our hope that this may also be useful to researchers and policymakers seeking a deeper understanding of the extent and social implications of video surveillance as it is increasingly woven into the fabric of contemporary urban life.

We are at a critical juncture in the development and deployment of video surveillance technologies.

Although the project’s focus is on Canadian privacy legislation, we have received submissions from the U.K., the Netherlands, Portugal, Morocco, India, Malaysia, Australia, and from across the United States. While all pins in the app are color-coded based on the Canadian guidelines outlined above, a substantial international data set could reveal interesting patterns in the transparency and accountability of video surveillance operations internationally.

Awareness, Consent, and Accountability

Our projects combine citizen-perspective research, participatory design, and public education in the expanding arena of visual surveillance and consumer privacy. We have two interlocking goals: to find out what people understand about the recent developments in video surveillance associated with the introduction of digital techniques, what concerns they express, and where information gaps exist; and to develop tools to help them assert their privacy rights and constructively engage with the surveillance organizations, processes, and policies of video surveillance.

Our approach to measuring and raising awareness is multi-pronged, accomplished through our qualitative fieldwork, our app, and our website. We have found that people are generally aware that they are often under surveillance in public spaces, but often unaware of the policies or regulations that govern that surveillance. They want to know, however, what is happening to their data in terms of retention and access. The SurveillanceWatch app takes these information needs into account, and allows users to document as many features of the surveillance installations they come across in their daily lives as are relevant to them. We hope that using the app generates awareness both of the presence of surveillance and a questioning attitude towards the way it is used and the degree of compliance with privacy regulation that organizations demonstrate.

Our fieldwork participants were clear in stating that in most cases they would like to know if organizations collecting their personal data through video surveillance were compliant with privacy regulation. However, as we have noted, so far no reported private sector installation meets the minimum compliance standard for informative signage [2]. In the hope that increased citizen awareness can help encourage organizations to meet their privacy obligations, the SurveillanceWatch app allows uses to document the degree to which installations they see are compliant with privacy standards, and presents this information in an easily accessible and interpretable form. As signage is the primary means by which organizations notify people about surveillance, and notification is necessary for consent, the app allows detailed documenting of the information on such signs. Since informed consent is impossible if people are not given the chance to understand the nature of the surveillance before they enter the surveilled space, it is important that organizations take their responsibility to provide compliant signage seriously. The app crowd-sources the assessment of compliance and renders that compliance visible.

This research is conducted on the assumption that the purposes of surveillance and the potential uses of visual surveillance data need to be made more transparent, and organizations using these technologies need to be more accountable to members of the public in protecting privacy rights. Accountability is multi-faceted and inheres with both organizations that collect data, and citizens whose data is collected. Organizations have a responsibility to develop clear policies and are accountable for demonstrating that they are compliant with the laws and regulations governing their surveillance activities. Citizens, in turn, have both the right and the responsibility to engage with surveillance policy at all levels, and we hope through the development and promotion of our SurveillanceWatch tool that we can help to make the importance of this engagement obvious and the process easy.

We are at a critical juncture in the development and deployment of video surveillance technologies. Their use and capabilities are increasing, while policies, procedures, and uses for the information that is visually captured for analysis are still evolving. This period of change and flux, when policy is malleable to disruptions and interventions is the ideal time for the development and deployment of privacy-protective measures to regulate the use of these technologies in the interests of civic safety and well-being. This is unlikely to happen, however, if Canadians are unaware of what is at stake. By finding out what they need to know and attempting, through technological mediation, to supply that information, we hope to help raise awareness and equalize some of the power asymmetries between surveillers and surveilled.


The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments. This research was funded by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada through their Contributions Program. The opinions expressed in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.


Brenda McPhail is a researcher and privacy advocate. Email: 4bmcphail@gmail.com.

Andrew Clement is a Professor in the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, Canada.

Joseph Ferenbok is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Canada.

Arndis Johnson is a recent graduate of the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto.


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