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VANCOUVER—When the last of the Olympic athletes ski, skate and slide out of town, Vancouverites will be left with an unexpected legacy: 970 cameras.
“Security investment always leaves a good legacy of security for the country,” International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge told media gathered last February in Whistler, marking the one year countdown to the Games.
The security bill for the Olympics is expected to reach the $1 billion mark. A March 2009 Vancouver city report includes the total cost of installing Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) systems. The Vancouver 2010-Integrated Security Unit (V2010-ISU) will pay $2.1 million, in addition to the $435,000 the province is contributing. But all costs do not appear on the balance sheet. There are also social costs, such as the diminished personal privacy in public spaces.
In March 2009, Philip Boyle and Kevin Haggerty from the University of Alberta, published a report about surveillance and the Vancouver Olympics.
“Public officials occasionally use the pretext of the Olympics to introduce forms of surveillance that the public might oppose in any other context, capitalizing on the fact that in anticipation of the Games citizens tend to be more tolerant of intrusive security measures,” wrote Boyle and Haggerty in Privacy Games: The Vancouver Olympics, Privacy, and Surveillance.
The apparent acceptance of increased surveillance is something that requires a sober second thought, according to Adrienne Burk, professor in Sociology and Anthropology at Simon Fraser University.
“It’s important to ask ourselves what happens socially when we set up this kind of system of monitoring,” she told The Dominion. “Does the presence of cameras transmitting our images to unknown viewers help us know our neighbors better, or less well? Is there an increase in fear and suspicion, or in feelings of community and safety? We have to be careful when cameras are introduced for one reason, but left in place, or re-deployed for another, without these contextual conversations taking place.”
Although the Vancouver city report Privacy Games: The Vancouver Olympics, Privacy, and Surveillance points to the cruise ship terminal and entertainment district as key areas the cameras will be installed, the City of Vancouver and the V2010-ISU have not been specific regarding locations for all CCTV systems.
“Approximately 900 CCTV security cameras [have been] installed at venues for the Winter Games with another 50-70 CCTV security cameras installed in the urban domain," states the report. "The urban domain consists of areas where the public gather outside a venue,” reads the V2010-ISU's website.
The urban domains have been dubbed "Safe Assembly Areas" by the ISU. These are areas, also known as "Free Speech Zones," or "Protest Pens," where people are allowed to engage in lawful protest.
Minimal research has been conducted on the number of surveillance cameras that currently exist in the Downtown area. A collaborative effort between the Vancouver Public Space Network and the Simon Fraser University Surveillance Project aims to change that.
Late in August, volunteers set out to count and record the locations of cameras they could spot on city streets and alleyways.
“Surveillance cameras are distributed primarily in focused local areas or higher end shopping areas,” David Eby, Executive Director of BC Civil Liberties Association told The Dominion in a telephone interview.
Eby calls attention to the irony of the scenario of increased cameras in Vancouver. “You end up with a paradoxical situation where low income and middle income neighborhoods essentially, financially and logistically, facilitate the displacement of crime into their neighborhoods.”
People who are engaged in so-called “undesirable activities” such as panhandling in shopping districts like Robson Street or Gastown, may end up being displaced from public spaces as a result of security cameras that business owners argue are necessary in order to increase consumer confidence.
BC Civil Liberties has received confirmation from the ISU that no new cameras will be installed in the Downtown Eastside, an area of Vancouver that is the poorest off-reserve postal code in Canada.
The Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) identified some of the the problems with CCTV back in 1999 when it challenged the VPD’s efforts to install cameras in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
“Cameras do not provide employment or housing opportunities... Rather than targeting business-operators or landlords who take advantage of poverty and addictions, [the use of CCTV] focuses on the behavior of those individuals who do not fit the expectations or mores of the camera monitors,” their report states.
Ten years later, the CCAP report is still relevant to the concerns about the social costs of these cameras in the context of the Olympics and the Downtown Eastside.
Andrew Pask, director of the Vancouver Public Space Network, cautions that CCTV cameras should only be seen as a “tool of last resort.”
The pattern of Olympic cities, including Athens, Turin, and Beijing, has been to retain surveillance cameras after the Games.
The City of Vancouver has admitted the $435,000 worth of cameras will not be temporary, but part of a “redeployable unit.”
“You know, witnessing has always been a fundamental aspect of democracy, involving actors, observers, and recording of incidents,” professor Burk indicates.
“But cameras complicate that relationship, because the viewers and actors can be removed from each other, and recordings substantively altered," she said, arguing for a public debate before more cameras are installed.
Francesca Galasso is a 4th-year sociology student at Simon Fraser University. She lives in Vancouver.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.