Illegal Retail Surveillance

By: John Honovich, Published on Jan 15, 2013

Canada's national public broadcaster has a critical report on widespread illegal video surveillance use in major retailers. In this note, we examine the cause, the rationale behind it, the potential impact and how this differs across countries.

Law

The issue behind this is a recent change in Canadian federal law that significantly increases responsibilities of video surveillance users to disclose their presence. Specifically:

"Under the law, stores are required to post signs outside their entrances that alert customers to the use of video surveillance, its purpose and a contact number so people can find out how they can obtain a copy of any footage that contains their image."

However, none of the stores examined by a Toronto Institute meet these full requirements and only 30% had any sign at all.

Criticism

Canada's Civil Liberties Association was quick to criticize the situation, saying:

"It's a question of not depriving people of the opportunity to make a decision themselves about what they want to share and what they do not want to share and that's a fundamental aspect of human dignity."

Americans might think it is bizarre to link privacy in public places to human dignity. However, this is an increasingly common philosophy / approach used in the UK as well as the European Union (see our review of International Video Surveillance Laws/Regulations).

Moreover, a Canadian government official further criticized surveillance, claiming:

"Statistics on preventive video surveillance shows that it's practically non-existent. Even in relation to criminal investigations its effect is quite limited so the case for video surveillance in relation to security still has to be made."

While this is certainly debated within municipal monitoring, retailer's use of surveillance undoubtedly has great value, and is the reason behind almost all retailers using it, despite no regulations to do so and retailer's general frugality.

Enforcement Constraints

Even if most Canadian retailers are breaking the law, they will not be going to jail any time soon. As the Canadian government official admitted:

"The only power we really have is the power to name."

Some potential risk exists, especially if it hurts the reputation of a store among consumers, though since cameras in stores are so widespread and overt, it may not have much overall impact.

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