This past Thursday marked my first Privacy Day as Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner. Seven months ago, as a newly minted Commissioner, I hit the ground running, working from home in the middle of a pandemic, faced with a number of complex privacy issues that required my prompt attention, including police use of body-worn cameras and facial recognition technologies.
Since Data Privacy Day was first recognized in 2007, my office has marked the occasion in some way every January 28th. This day provides us with the opportunity to highlight key privacy issues, raise public awareness of privacy rights, and educate Ontarians on the role of our office. It also allows us to host an open forum for discussion and debate on complex privacy issues, engaging with our stakeholders and with the public whom we serve.
For this year’s Data Privacy Day, I hosted a panel discussion on the topic of Law Enforcement and Surveillance Technologies, bringing together perspectives from the police, access, and privacy law, human rights, research, academia, and the media.
Law enforcement agencies are increasingly turning to surveillance technologies with a view to improving operational efficiencies and enhancing public safety. The question is how to ensure law enforcement uses these new technologies appropriately ‒ with transparency, accountability, fairness, and privacy considerations embedded right into the policies and procedures governing their use.
The morning began with an excellent overview of surveillance technologies by Chris Parsons, Senior Research Associate, Citizen Lab. Chris described technologies like body-worn cameras (BWCs), artificial intelligence applications such as predictive policing and facial recognition technologies, as well as IMSI catchers and decryption devices, among others being increasingly used or considered by police services in Ontario and across the country. According to Chris, these are not neutral technologies; they are inherently political and power-laden. For example, the manner and means by which BWCs operate in certain situations can reconfigure the power dynamic between the police and the public. This makes governance frameworks absolutely essential.
Following Chris’ introduction, the panelists provided a broad array of insights each from their unique perspectives on this important and timely issue. I was so absorbed by the discussion and fascinated by the issues that I kept having to remind myself of my role as moderator, responsible for asking the questions and keeping on time!
Some notable highlights from the discussion include Lakehead University Professor Alana Saulnier’s summary of her research on the effectiveness of BWCs. Among some of her findings to date, she indicated that the public is generally supportive of the police adoption of BWCs and that BWCs can change the public perception of police. People who interacted with police officers wearing BWCs felt more positive about those interactions than people who interacted with officers not wearing BWCs — though she did note that further research is needed with respect to the impact of BWCs on specific groups, for example, victims of sexual violence.
Raj Dhir, Executive Director and Chief Legal Officer of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, reminded us that public support for BWCs is not universal and that BWCs must not be viewed as a panacea. When it comes to addressing systemic discrimination, a more holistic approach is required to ensure that policies and procedures which may appear neutral on their face do not have disproportionate impacts on racialized and Indigenous communities (for example, policies and procedures related to police mugshot databases).
Stephen McCammon, Legal Counsel at the IPC, canvassed the privacy implications of BWCs. In addition to those individuals directly involved in the police-civilian encounter, others may also be captured on camera, including witnesses, victims, family members, children, and passers-by. Privacy implications may further vary by context, for example, in private dwellings, hospital settings or at public protests. Given their privacy impacts, BWC programs must yield a high dividend in terms of protecting other human rights and enhancing transparency and accountability. Police officers play a critical role in our justice system and their decisions and conduct can shape public confidence. It follows that the public must have timely access to critical information, including information on how police make decisions about the proactive disclosure of BWC footage, or the supervision, training, and discipline of officers when it comes to their use of force.
Colin Freeze, reporter for the Globe and Mail who regularly covers stories about law enforcement’s use of emerging surveillance technologies, provided some reflections from the perspective of the media. He stated that journalists would indeed be very interested in gaining access to BWC footage on behalf of the public to provide additional context that could help them better understand what may have transpired in serious incidents of high public interest. When asked, Colin responded that what surprises him most about new surveillance technologies being used by law enforcement, is the fact that he is still surprised by all that he learns in this field.
Colin Stairs, Chief Information Officer for the Toronto Police Service, offered a very valuable “boots on the ground” perspective, describing the operational benefits and challenges of BWCs. He emphasized the importance of transparent and timely discussions about police use of surveillance technology in order to build and maintain public trust. He spoke candidly of the importance of cultural changes to policing that emphasize diversion and connection to mental health services over prosecution, and the need to use BWC recordings to help guide and instruct officers as part of an overarching holistic approach to improving police accountability.
We also had the pleasure of being joined by Ron Kruzeniski, Saskatchewan’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, who rounded out the morning with some high-level takeaways and summing it all up to the need to increase and build trust in those institutions that are so important to our democracy.
Over the course of several months/years, our Office has been involved in a constructive dialogue with the Toronto Police Service and its Board, along with other key stakeholders, that resulted in the recent adoption of a robust Policy and related Procedures governing the Service’s BWC program. Drawing on lessons learned from this positive experience, the IPC announced it is currently working on developing a generic governance framework for the benefit of other police services across the province.
All told, 1,142 people registered for the live webcast event to mark Data Privacy Day with us. A smashing success!
Webcasts such as this one, featuring open discussion and dialogue, can create opportunities to encourage the early integration of privacy and security protections in the deployment of new technologies and help design appropriate governance frameworks that promote accountability, transparency, and fairness as well. Bringing different perspectives to bear on a given privacy issue invites us to look beyond our own mandates and agendas and invite different voices to the conversation, including from the perspective of human rights, civil society, and public safety.
If you did not get a chance to watch the webcast yet, I encourage you to do so and become part of the conversation. Our fundamental rights, such as our right to privacy, are not borne from silence, but from being spoken and heard.
This post is also available in: French