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Should Hamilton homeowners be allowed to point cameras at the street?

Posted: February 9, 2018

Privacy expert says current bylaw ‘protects citizens’ fundamental right to privacy’

by Matthew Van Dongen  Hamilton Spectator

A city bylaw passed in 2010 bans residential security cameras from pointing anywhere other than the homeowner’s own property. – John Rennison,Hamilton Spectator file photo

The city will look at making it legal for homeowners to point security cameras at the street as a way to aid police investigations.

But the province’s former privacy commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, is urging council to think twice.

Councillors endorsed a motion from Coun. Sam Merulla Wednesday to study changing a city bylaw that bans residential security cameras from pointing anywhere other than the homeowner’s own property.

Merulla argued home security footage is an increasingly crucial investigative tool, pointing to footage that helped police track down the people who murdered Ancaster’s Tim Bosma.

“You can already walk down the street holding a video camera without breaking the law. But you can’t point a security camera at the street? That doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.

He also argued the existing bylaw is tough to enforce, given a homeowner can refuse access to a bylaw officer seeking to examine camera footage.

But Cavoukian, now a privacy expert-in-residence at Ryerson University, said Hamilton’s bylaw was hailed as a “progressive” measure when it was passed in 2010. (The rule was one of many included in the city’s “fortifications” bylaw enacted in response to gang clubhouse concerns.)

“You would be going from a wonderful bylaw that protects your citizens’ fundamental right to privacy … to allowing practically everything (in neighbourhoods) to be recorded,” she said. “Why would you do that?”

It’s unclear how many Ontario cities actually ban private homeowner cameras from pointing at public spaces. London has a bylaw with similar provisions.

Federal privacy law has strict rules for how businesses can record their customers, employees and public space — but those laws don’t apply to homeowners.

Coun. Aidan Johnson asked city staff to investigate any “constitutional rights implications” around privacy as part of the report back to council.

The city included the security camera rule in 2010 “as simple recognition of the right to privacy,” said building inspection manager John Lane.

He estimated the department fields two or three complaints per month from residents upset about cameras pointed their way. The city occasionally orders homeowners to change the field of view of a security camera — but no one has ever been charged or fined under the bylaw, he said.

Homeowners can also apply for a bylaw exemption if they have a compelling rationale for monitoring the street — like evidence of harassment or regular criminal activity. (Fewer than 20 homeowners are exempt.)

Lane said he is open to revisiting the bylaw — particularly if police make a case for allowing street monitoring. He noted Halton police already encourage residents to register their cameras to aid in investigations.

Hamilton police board chair Lloyd Ferguson applauded the idea. “This is something senior command supports,” he said.

Merulla emphasized his intent is not to remove bylaw protection for bedroom windows or backyards. “Your backyard is private,” he said. “The street is not.”

But making that distinction might be tricky. “Depending on where your camera is mounted, recording the street but not the neighbours could be logistically difficult,” Lane said.

The latest study comes as the city explores adding more surveillance cameras in parks to combat vandalism and illegal dumping It also recently added cameras to city buses and garbage trucks, as well as at hundreds of intersections.

mvandongen@thespec.com