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A closed-circuit television camera at the Atkinson Housing Co-operative in the Alexandra Park neighbourhood of Toronto. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
A closed-circuit television camera at the Atkinson Housing Co-operative in the Alexandra Park neighbourhood of Toronto. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Ontario privacy watchdog moves to block more police access to TCHC security cameras Add to ...

Ontario’s top privacy official made an 11th-hour intervention on Thursday in an attempt to stop a proposal to give Toronto Police greater access to security-camera footage from public-housing properties.

“I don’t understand why they wouldn’t have consulted with us. We don’t want to live in a surveillance state,” Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, told The Globe and Mail. “You are talking about people’s homes.”

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Her office dispatched a lawyer to force the subject onto the agenda of Thursday’s Toronto Police Services Board monthly meeting after The Globe drew the privacy commissioner’s attention to a proposal to step up surveillance at Toronto Community Housing Corp. properties.

The Globe reported earlier this year that there have been at least 155 homicides on or near TCHC properties over a decade. The police board was discussing a report about possible solutions from a task force led by Councillor Frances Nunziata and Toronto Police Deputy Chief Peter Sloly.

The No. 1 proposal is that the “Toronto Police Service enter into an agreement with Toronto Community Housing Corporation to access closed circuit television (CCTV) camera images from TCHC properties.”

But this suggestion was not cleared with Ontario’s privacy watchdog office, which has significant concerns about any potential unfettered police access to public housing surveillance.

“We don’t think the folks who put together this report have done their homework,” said Stephen McCammon, the privacy lawyer who rushed to the meeting and urged the board to “stand down” on the proposal.

As a result of his intervention, the board accepted the report, but only pending feedback from the privacy commissioner.

More than 160,000 people live in TCHC housing, which has CCTV in many of its alleyways, entrances and other common spaces. Police can negotiate access to the footage or get warrants after serious crimes – just as they do for CCTV footage elsewhere.

The proposal is not for more surveillance cameras, but for Toronto Police to replicate a formal understanding they have with Toronto Transit Commission officials that facilitates without a warrant the handover of footage taken aboard city’s buses, subways, streetcars and transit stations.

But privacy watchdogs bristle at any suggestion the situations are comparable. By law, privacy considerations are much higher in and around public residences than mass transit routes.

“Totally different. Chalk and cheese,” Ms. Cavoukian told The Globe. Security guards viewing footage is one thing, she said, but what the law “doesn’t allow for, and shouldn’t allow for, is warrantless routine access by the police” of residential surveillance footage.

Ms. Cavoukian, who is about to retire after 17 years in office, pointed out she had a role in the agreement on transit footage. Before those videos are handed over, a TTC official must be satisfied with a police document that says it is necessary, and bears the signature of an investigating detective and Chief Bill Blair or his designate.

Such an accord cannot be easily adapted to public housing, Ms. Cavoukian said.

Ms. Nunziata defended the safety task force’s report, saying “these were all suggestions brought in by the experts in Toronto housing.”

She added that the report is just recommendations, and that the consultations were to come later. “I’m really actually very proud of what we’ve been able to bring forward,” she said.

A spokesperson for Toronto Community Housing said the agency “will continue our commitment to protect the privacy of our residents.”

Chief Bill Blair said the service encounters no major problems accessing footage from TCHC, which can provide “exceptional” evidence from crime scenes when cameras haven’t been vandalized.

“They’re very helpful and very cooperative,” he said.

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