Vancouver city council discusses increased surveillance to deter crime

CCTV surveillance has historically targeted marginalised and racialized communities

Two CCTV cameras are seen on a pole. Their background is a bright blue sky.
The motion was defeated with only one vote in favour. Image courtesy of Unsplash (Michał Jakubowski)

By: Chloë Arneson, News Writer

A new motion was brought forward in Vancouver’s city council to increase the use of CCTV surveillance technology in areas around Metro Vancouver. It suggested cameras should be installed in partnership with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD). If the motion passed, the VPD would determine where the cameras would be placed.

The Vancouver City Council voted on this motion at the end of April 2022. The vote was turned down and recommendations to fund CCTV technology in Vancouver will not be made. Councillor Melissa De Genova was the only council member to vote in favour of the motion. 

Originally, the motion, put forward by De Genova, explained that large cities across the world such as London, New York, and Washington use technologies such as CCTV cameras or facial recognition technology to counter violent crimes. 

The motion stated violent crime has increased since the last council debate regarding increasing CCTV cameras in 2018. According to statistics provided by the Vancouver Police Department, crime has increased 11.3% since last year. The types of crime that increase this statistic are theft and mischief. Crimes against a person, homicide, and breaking-and-entering are down from last year. 

Some were concerned the motion would have infringed on citizens’ privacy rights. 

The Peak interviewed Dr. Darren Byler, an SFU professor who specialises in surveillance systems and their impact on marginalised communities, to find out more.  

“It’s hard to know exactly what effect [the cameras will] have. My sense is that when they say ‘critical areas,’ they’re referring to high traffic areas which might be areas where they say there are high rates of crime.

“Those locations are also locations where Black and brown people — people that are racialized — are often located,” said Byler. “My sense is that it will turn regular activity into something that could become criminalised.

“We should be very careful in how we use surveillance and think not from the position of those who are protected in the society,” Byler began, “but rather from the position of those that are more vulnerable, who have less protections, so you know stateless peoples, undocumented peoples, people that are already radicalized, they are the most affected by this. Because what surveillance really does is that it amplifies existing problems in our society, it makes them worse.” 

Byler noted that security is never neutral since it is designed to discipline. “You’re always being watched, or you might potentially be watched, so you monitor your behaviour [ . . . ] That assumes that the person being watched has the capacity to change their behaviour,” said Byler. 

Surveillance affects people from particular communities differently. Byler explained there is a disproportionate amount of surveillance directed towards certain socio-economic and ethno-racial statuses.

“Surveillance is never neutral. It is always about control, no matter where it’s situated.” Byler added, “It’s about controlling and disciplining people.” 

The Internet Freedom Foundation, an organization from India that promotes fundamental technology and privacy rights, suggests that CCTV surveillance is not effective in preventing sexual violence or crimes against women, as the majority of this violence occurs in private places. Internet Freedom Foundation reported CCTV cameras can have undesired effects on women, such as “voyeurism and moral policing.” They further suggest that improved street lighting may be more effective at preventing violence against women. 

Dr. Byler explained he believes “we should think about surveillance as a response to a symptom rather than treating the underlying cause.”