EDITORIAL: An eye on security

Having police monitor traffic cameras may make us feel safer in Surrey, but we should be wary.

What is the price of security in the City of Surrey?

In the wake of public outrage over the spate of drug-turf war-related shooting incidents in Surrey, the RCMP have been granted real-time access to the city’s network of 330 traffic cameras, soon to be increased to more than 400 ‘eyes’ covering major intersections.

Where once police had to wait until city hall was open to access this footage, direct access to the cameras will now be a mouse-click away.

There is no question that this could be a useful tool in the investigation of specific incidents – particularly in identifying individuals and vehicles going to or leaving the scene of a crime. Surveillance images are undeniably worthwhile in producing images of potential suspects – when a crime has been committed.

Accessing traffic cameras seems like a logical step, but we should be careful of how far we travel down the road of considering surveillance a panacea for all our ills.

Monitoring surveillance cameras is a cost- and labour-intensive business, which may give us the illusion of security with minimal actual benefit.

A 2008 study of the famed ‘ring of steel’ – London, England’s impressive street-surveillance network – showed that in all of that year the omnipresent cameras succeeded in solving only one crime.

Evidence from other cities – such as New York – that have embraced similar technology tends to suggest that, rather than preventing crime, it has only modified criminal behaviours in public places. There are still plenty of individuals ready to take a chance on ‘gaming’ the system – counting on the cameras’ limits, and slow and inconsistent response to what they record – to perpetrate, and get away with, offences.

And there are also troubling privacy and civil-rights issues raised by a society’s increasing comfort with – and reliance on – surveillance technology in public places. Abuses of such systems can and do take place.

Only this January, for instance, a furor erupted in Vancouver when the images of three British tourists, taken by a surveillance camera in Pacific Centre, became the subject of an internal police document describing them as “suspicious” and “Middle-Eastern” which was then, somehow, leaked to a news website.

Vancouver police acknowledged the visitors were innocent of any crime – but not before the tourists’ images had been widely circulated online, and they became fearful of leaving their hotel room.

Having police monitor traffic cameras may make us feel safer in Surrey, but we should be wary of where such seemingly simple steps may, ultimately, lead the city.