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Bid for increased surveillance alarms privacy watchdog

Federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

An RCMP and House of Commons security proposal to more than double the number of video cameras on Parliament Hill, without warning the public it's being watched, alarms the privacy commissioner, who says it's an ironic symbol of how pervasive government surveillance is becoming.

The plan, part of a massive security overhaul, combined with the Harper government's hotly debated Internet surveillance legislation contributes to a growing sense of unease among Canadians, Jennifer Stoddart said Thursday.

The privacy commissioner's office saw a spike in complaints and an increase in data breaches at federal departments and institutions last year, according to Ms. Stoddart's annual report.

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She said she's skeptical about the massive use of video surveillance, but her report underscores not only privacy but democratic concerns.

"We were concerned about the scope of the project and its potential impact on the privacy rights of parliamentarians, parliamentary staff, guests and visitors to Parliament Hill, and of those engaging in peaceful protests and assemblies," the report said.

"According to the preliminary [privacy impact assessment] a deliberate decision was made to not post signs notifying individuals of video surveillance on Parliament Hill."

There are already 50 cameras operating on the roofs of the Parliament Buildings, but security officials are proposing to install an additional 134 video cameras over the next three years and to monitor them on 24/7 basis.

"Any of these massive surveillance programs are a real infringement on citizens' rights and have not necessarily proven their worth," Ms. Stoddart said in an interview.

"There have been quite egregious misuses of video surveillance cameras in public places."

She pointed to Quebec police, who were caught focusing the cameras outside the National Assembly on nearby hotel windows. The RCMP was not immediately available to comment. Ms. Stoddart renewed her criticism of Bill C-30, the Internet surveillance bill, which caused a firestorm of criticism in the House of Commons and across the country.

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The bill is still in legislative limbo with justice officials reconsidering retooling it, but the privacy commissioner says it needs to be either completely "retailored" or scrapped.

"It needs an oversight and reporting mechanism minimally, [and] it needs a clear justification as to why this is the only way to go," she said.

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