Canada and the World

The electronic eye view

The war on terror is making surveillance systems more popular than ever

CHRIS WOOD November 19 2001
Canada and the World

The electronic eye view

The war on terror is making surveillance systems more popular than ever

CHRIS WOOD November 19 2001

The electronic eye view

The war on terror is making surveillance systems more popular than ever

BY CHRIS WOOD in Vancouver

Run afoul of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and you’ll end up in a windowless booking room in the bowels of Terminal 1. You’ll be finger-printed and stood in front of a camera that will take pictures of your face in full view and in profile. So far, so conventional for police agencies around the world for many decades. What’s different is the software on the booking station’s computer terminal. While you’re still blinking from the cam-

era flash, it’s comparing the picture of your face to hundreds already stored in its database. If someone who looks like you has been arrested at Pearson before, perhaps under another name, or is known to be wanted by police, the software alerts the booking officer.

For now, the Canadian-made software employed at Pearson is of limited usefulness: it searches only the mug shots the Toronto airport detachment of the RCMP has collected. The system—like the multiplying numbers of public and private video cameras—was installed to aid in

day-to-day law enforcement. In London, Ont., and Calgary, among other places, police are toying with installing full-time video surveillance systems to watch over city streets. But since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, the demand for tighter security—particularly more effective and ubiquitous surveillance—has soared.

On many security agencies’ wish lists is face-recognition technology that can identify people from images caught on security cameras. Ideally, it would integrate separate mug-shot collections from around the world. RCMP Cpl. Larry Foy says the existing computer at Pearson, for instance, ought to be tied to wider databases of suspected terrorists. “It would be an ultimate goal to have linkage with sister agencies,” he says. “The only thing holding us back now is probably cost.”

That, and privacy concerns. The notion of faceless watchers monitoring ordinary citizens in their daily rounds gives civil libertarians nightmarish visions of George Orwell’s fictional and dystopian Big Brother society. In a controversial decision released on Oct. 4, federal privacy commissioner George Radwanski found that a single video surveillance camera in Kelowna, B.C., has met “the letter” of the Privacy Act since Aug. 28, when police stopped routinely taping what went on under its gaze. “Nevertheless,” Radwanski wrote, “I am not satisfied that a continuation of the video-camera surveillance without continuous recording is sufficiently respectful of the privacy rights of Canadians. In my view, only outright removal of the camera would meet that standard.”

The federal ruling does not apply to municipal police forces. And one illuminating measure of the shifting mood on the subject can be found by logging on to any Internet stock-watch site. Call up price charts for shares in any company involved in travel—say, Air Canada, Four Seasons Flotéis or P&O Princess Cruises Pic. They all drop off a cliff after Sept. 11. Compare

those with their mirror images on the charts of these little-known companies: Nexus Group International Inc. of Burlington, Ont.; Vancouver’s Imagis Technologies Inc.; or U.S. firms Visionics Corp. and Viisage Technology Inc. What the four have in common is software that promises to identify people from pictures—and stock prices that went through the roof on news of the attack, in some cases tripling in value. Politicians in Canada and the United States have since reinforced perceptions that attitudes have changed, authorizing sweeping reviews of national-security policy in both countries.

In September, Keflavik airport at Reykjavik, Iceland, became the world’s first to run every visitor’s face through a database in search of suspected terrorists or other criminals. Other airports are sure to follow. Nexus chairman Jerry Janik boasts his company’s face-recognition software was the only one demonstrated between Sept. 25 and Oct. 5 to members of the Montrealbased International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets international air-travel standards. “They all want to implement as fast as possible,” says Janik. “They’re just waiting for funding to hit the plate.” Janik’s technology remains unproven in use, however. By contrast, Vancouverbased Imagis—whose directors include the ex-second-in-command of the FBI— has put its face-recognition software into operation in police departments throughout North America, as well as in casinos, to help catch cheaters. “We use it all the time to identify people who come in lying about who they are,” says Const. Janice Armstrong at Canada’s largest RCMP detachment, in Surrey, B.C.

The other two companies in the race to arm public facilities with video-identification software are American. From its home in Littleton, Mass., Viisage made the facerecognition software that sparked wide controversy last winter when it was used to scan crowds attending football’s Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla. (it identified a dozen or so small-time crooks). After the attacks, New Jersey-based Visionics released a paper titled “Protecting civilization from the faces of terror.” It identified five ways video-identification software could make air travel safer, from general surveillance of airport crowds to “instantaneous terrorist background check[s] on each passenger.”

Vancouver, meanwhile, is the biggest Canadian community so far to contemplate large-scale video surveillance of its own citizens. In a proposal given civilian approval on Sept. 20, the police department plans to erect 25 colour closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras to monitor activity on nearly 70 blocks of the drugand crime-infested Downtown Eastside. To protect privacy, the proposal suggests trained civilians, not police, monitor the cameras, under the oversight of a civilian watchdog body, including civil liberties groups. But the events under the cameras’ multiple eyes would be recorded, and tapes saved for at least a month.

The author of the elaborate proposal is Grant Fredericks, a former Vancouver police officer turned U.S.-based consultant. Spot use of surveillance cameras, he says, has proven their worth. Tapes of looting during the 1994 Stanley Cup series led to charges against 106 people. On Aug. 8, a single camera installed temporarily to monitor street congestion during a fireworks show caught on tape a fracas that left several men with stab wounds. Police used the tape to identify and charge two youths with assault. Argues Fredericks: “A properly designed CCTV system could become our most powerful tool to reduce victimization.”

Officials in other cities hold similar views. Sherbrooke, Que., has had cameras on downtown streets in its bar district since 1991. In 1999, Statistics Canada ranked it the country’s safest city. Montreal, Sudbury, Ont., and Winnipeg each have a few cameras in trouble spots. Kelowna polled its citizens in July, says Mayor Walter Gray, and found overwhelming support for what the city calls

“community safety cameras.” Since surveillance-video stills of suspected terrorists began showing up on newscasts, adds Gray, “I think cameras would gain even more support.” He adds that Kelowna will go ahead with additional cameras, but for now will abide by Radwanski s directive not to record what they observe unless a crime or emergency is in progress.

To their dismay, even civil libertarians concede that views on privacy may be shifting. “In the wake of Sept. 11, there is probably some considerable public perception that a proliferation of video surveillance cameras in our streets and parks would somehow make us safer from terrorist attacks,” Radwanski said in his ruling. “But even if New York City had been endowed with so many cameras as to turn the whole city into a giant TV studio, this would have done nothing to prevent the terrorists from crashing aircraft into the World Trade Center.”

Surveillance critics contend that cameras do litde against more ordinary crime, either, at best moving it out of sight of the lenses. In Kelowna, asserts Dale Beyerstein, spokesman on privacy for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, “crime moved about four blocks up the street to in front of a Christian bookstore.” Far from improving safety, police surveillance is “in some ways worse than stalking,” Beyerstein claims. “They can see you. You can’t see them.”

But for many North Americans the fear of more substantive threats outweighs such abstractions. In violence-riddled Downtown Eastside Vancouver, says community worker Frank Gilbert, losing some privacy “is not one of the biggest issues. The big issue is how will I get to the grocery in the next block and back safely. Anything that promises a solution to the street scene is fairly attractive.”

Another microcosm of the issue can be found in east Toronto’s 1,600-student Cedarbrae Collegiate Institute. After a shooting (not involving students) on school grounds two years ago, Cedarbrae installed 32 cameras at known trouble spots, monitored in the principal’s office. In early October, more cameras were installed to eliminate blind spots. Daljit Layal, 18, has attended Cedarbrae since 1996. Then, he says, “a lot of crimes were happening—stealing, people fighting.” Since cameras entered the school, Layal says, “There’s a mind-set: ‘There’s a camera there, why even do this anyway, because I’m going to get caught.’ Personally, I feel safer.”

Nowhere is video surveillance more popular than in Great Britain, where public cameras were first installed to battle Northern Ireland-sponsored terror attacks. “The motivation was to get evidence on anyone who might leave a car bomb,” says Fredericks, who visited

Britain to research Vancouver’s proposal. But after video-surveillance tape helped solve the brutal 1993 slaying of twoyear-old Jamie Bulger by two older boys, spending soared. In Airdrie, Scotland, street crime fell 21 per cent in the two years after cameras appeared. In the Midlands town of Doncaster, troublemakers accused of 3,800 crimes pleaded guilty, once confronted with evidence of their crimes caught on tape. In August, London earmarked $180 million, on top of $480 million already spent, to expand surveillance by almost a third.

For now, the sinister Orwellian scenario of surveillance cameras identifying individuals on the street and monitoring their every move remains a fiction. As a practical matter, most public surveillance cam-

eras are mounted well above street level to prevent vandalism. Much of the crime they spot occurs at night in comparative darkness. As a result, the images they display, while sufficient to detect a crime in progress, are often too partial, dark or blurred for use with identification software. Street crime, moreover, is a different adversary than international terror. To Fredericks, linking the two is “ridiculous.” Flis enthusiasm for surveillance rests on its usefulness for deterring—and prosecuting—muggers, not suicide bombers.

Still, from the meanest streets to the highest reaches of government, the search for technologies that promise greater security has moved into high gear. Already, says Nexus’s Janik, “We are capable of doing that face-in-the-crowd thing” in tests. How soon does he expect to see it done for real, using public video surveillance? “I’d say, in three to five years.” Big Brotherlike power to identify anyone, anytime remains elusive. But not, perhaps, for very much longer. ES3

Would increased video surveillance on city streets and in airports make you feel safer?