Expecting privacy in public places

Cameras on buses, internet and email monitoring, is privacy really at the heart of liberty in a modern Canada?

Michael Jackson's passing last week at the tender age of 50 shocked me right down to my shoes. "It's getting deadlier and deadlier for celebrities like us," I was overheard to remark. The King of Pop's demise was likely brought on by the stress of rehearsing for 50 concerts starting this summer in London. In my case, celebrity-hood exposes me to the unrelenting pressures of churning out a steady stream of cutting-edge editorials for millions of readers. And, like poor Jacko, it also means enduring the stress of having my every move monitored.

Sometimes I feel like I'm Truman Burbank starring in his own soap opera. Routine trips to an ATM, the local grocery store or even a visit to a high school political science class brings the unblinking gaze of dozens of cameras. Two of my biggest fans, police chief Beazley and mayor Kelly, relentlessly monitor my movements on downtown streets. They're even planning to start using wireless cams at this summer's mega-concerts on the Common. No, they won't be pointed at my fellow celebrities, McCartney and KISS. They'll be aimed squarely at me!

There's no escape. Metro Transit buses are getting cameras that continuously record both picture and sound. A recent Herald report on the bus cams elicited a plaintive message in the comments section from "annmarie"---obviously a pseudonym for my fellow celeb, Anne Murray. "So, if you're just chatting with your friends, your privacy in that conversation is being recorded and your privacy has been invaded," she wrote. "I'm glad I don't ride the buses anymore." Her comment generated a flood of pseudonymous flames.

"I really hate when people think public cameras are an invasion of their privacy!" said one angry commenter. "You legally have no right to expect privacy in a public place," another wrote. "I don't ride the bus very often, but when I do, I feel much safer," someone else opined. "You want privacy, stay in your home!" Someone calling herself "cdngurl" observed, "If recording every word I say means that one passenger or one driver will be safe and one criminal will pay for his/her crimes than [sic] by all means it's worth it...They search your personal belongings at the airport---privacy is a thing of the past."

Yes, privacy may indeed be a thing of the past. But where's the proof that cameras necessarily make anyone safer or that people in public places have no right to privacy? Canadian criminology professor Randy Lippert, who has studied the effects of cameras in public places, was quoted recently by CBC Halifax as saying, "Most of the activities that people fear the most---that is, you know, bombings and beatings---aren't deterred by the presence of the cameras."

And, retired Supreme Court justice Gerard La Forest argues there's a strong case to be made that surveillance cameras recording continuously in public places violate privacy laws and the Charter of Rights. "We should all be free to move about without fear of being systematically observed by agents of the state," he writes. Personally, I'd say cameras on buses wouldn't be nearly as intrusive if drivers could activate them when an incident occurs, instead of recording everyone, all the time.

Meantime, the Harper government introduced bills last week that would make it easier for police to monitor my email and internet surfing. Celebrity journalists like me worry that making it easier to monitor digital communications will give secretive governments more power to track down and fire whistleblowers who email us about wrongdoing by public officials. At the very least, there needs to be strong, independent oversight built into monitoring powers so that police and internet service providers can't abuse them.

No, I can tell you from my personal, celebrity experience, it's no fun being under constant surveillance. As Justice La Forest points out, privacy is at the heart of liberty in a modern state.

Correction: Last week's main photo on page 6 had the wrong caption. It actually shows El Jones, and was taken by Julé Malet-Veale.

Send an encrypted email to brucew@thecoast.ca.

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