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Condemning police surveillance cameras

Mark Ertel takes on the police chief as right to privacy debate heats up

DEFENDER. The rate at which we're trading our civil liberties for what we perceive as safety is very alarming. Credit: (Alex Eady)

Ottawa police chief Vern White will be defending the use of surveillance cameras in public space in a debate this week. The man who will challenge his position is Ottawa defence lawyer Mark Ertel, as part of the Crime Prevention Ottawa (CPO) speakers series.

Ottawa already utilizes a limited number of CCTVs (closed circuit televisions) and is considering installing cameras through out the downtown core.

Ertel, who is the president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa is staunchly opposed to the instillation of cameras, saying we’re moving toward an Orwellian city state.

“There’s a nineteen eighty-four aura about it,” Ertel says. “It’s very frightening I think.”

Ertel says there are plenty of reasons to agree with him. Taxpayers would be footing the bill for something that may have no real value since there is no evidence the cameras will have a significant impact on crime. The cost is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“It tends to push petty crime out of the downtown core and into the suburbs, because as petty criminals become aware that the cameras are there they will move their criminal activity elsewhere,” Ertel says. “So it’s not particularly effective at stopping crime but it might move it.”

Ertel also says the cameras could be used to marginalize minority groups, like gays and lesbians, who find themselves downtown.

Gays and lesbians have fought surveillance cameras for years, both because they tend to be urban and also because they tend to be frisky. In Ottawa, the National Capital Commission decision to install park cameras sparked derision because they targets parks where gay men hooked up.

“The rate at which we’re trading our civil liberties for what we perceive as safety is very alarming. And when you give away liberties in a trade for safety, you never give them back,” Ertel says. “What’s happening to us in this post 9/11 world is we’ve become persuaded by the fear machine which is really George W. Bush and mainstream news organizations that we have something to be afraid of all the time.”

Ertel cites the similar moves by Sudbury and St. Catherines, which resulted in a lot of tape with no one to watch it. Sudbury couldn’t afford to pay the salaries for people to watch live footage, negating the entire goal of the camera system.

“If they are going to claim that it could prevent some crime then presumably the people doing the crime are going to have to be worried about someone watching them,” Ertel says.

While everybody is entitled to privacy, the line is becoming harder and harder to define.

“Canadians should be thinking about where we want to draw the line on privacy. And are we know prepared to give up all of our privacy for the sake of security and if we are do we even have a society that’s worth saving,” Ertel says. “If you would have told me 25 years ago that they were planning on putting video cameras everywhere and recording what everyone does downtown, I would have said, ‘You have to be joking. That’s something they do in the Soviet Union.'”