Eyes in the sky growing in number thanks to technology

Ottawa is one of about 20 Canadian municipalities moving video cameras into public spaces, and technology is helping to accelerate the trend. The city operates 300 to 400 cameras, and several local companies make their living in the security camera business.

"Our job is prevention, not apprehension," says Bob Gauvreau, the city's manager of corporate security. "It's not big brother and I think people are getting away from that concern. They are coming to accept that they are going to be on cameras."

Security officials can watch swimming pools and parks, parking garages, local government buildings, streets, and transit facilities. Gauvreau credits the system for reducing vandalism expenses by hundreds of thousands of dollars. The City of Ottawa also began using mobile cameras equipped with loudspeakers in parks last spring. Ottawa Police Chief Vern White told a recent town hall meeting that cameras can be valuable but don't replace real-life officers.

"I am not suggesting that the police department should set up a camera network to watch over its citizens, but I am saying that cameras can help investigations and sometimes can help when citizens have a complaint about police."

[...] But not everyone likes the trend, warning of the danger to civil liberties. The "Big Brother" theme from the novel 1984 is constantly evoked to portray a society under constant watch from the eye in the sky. There are worries about where the video ends up, and who controls the images; governments and private companies have poor track records in ensuring personal data is not hacked or lost.

"What kind of a society do we want to live in?" asks Bill Brown of Surveillance Camera Players, an American group. "I believe surveillance cameras are installed in secrecy, operate in secrecy and are the complete antithesis of what democracy is all about." Brown runs tours on Manhattan Island in New York, where he estimates 15,000 cameras are installed.

Yet critics have been outweighed somewhat by those focused on the advantages security cameras can provide - especially in catching criminals and potential terrorists.

(Aired Sunday 1 March 2009 by CTV Ottowa.)

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