Electronic Surveillance is an Effective Law Enforcement Tool.

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Thesis: Electronic surveillance is an effective and necessary means of addressing serious security threats in the twenty-first century. Canadian citizens must be willing to sacrifice a small amount of privacy in order to protect their safety and security in an age of increasingly volatile threats.

Adapting to a Changing Context

The deadly terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 shocked the world with the revelation that a small group of terrorists have the capability to mastermind a sophisticated plot without being detected by authorities. Meanwhile, the early twenty-first century witnessed a proliferation of guns, drugs and gangs in many urban centres in North America, resulting in high rates of violent crime and declining profits for downtown businesses. Elsewhere, organized crime and the illegal drug trade have prospered as perpetrators grow increasingly savvy and sophisticated in their dealings.

Law enforcement agencies have responded to this new generation of threats to Canadian citizens with the increased use of electronic surveillance. Electronic surveillance techniques involve the monitoring of activities conducted by a particular individual or within a specific area for the purpose of deterring, detecting, investigating and prosecuting wrongdoing. Although electronic monitoring methods such as wiretaps have been used in Canada since the 1970s, the late twentieth-century saw a renewed emphasis on the potential for audio, video and Internet surveillance to ensure public safety and implement national security strategies.

The use of wiretaps and Internet monitoring to intercept the personal communications of suspected criminals typically occurs with a warrant as part of an ongoing criminal investigation. In 2001, an amendment to the Criminal Code and the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act gave Canadian law enforcement agents expanded authorization to use this type of electronic surveillance when investigating criminal organizations and terrorist groups, respectively. In addition to the expansion of surveillance powers, a changing societal context and technological advancements in the late twentieth century necessitated a qualitative shift in electronic surveillance methods. Increasingly, law enforcement agencies employ video surveillance in public spaces as an instrument of round-the-clock monitoring of activity in a given area rather than for the purpose of investigating specific criminals. Since the mid-1990s, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras have gained in popularity among Canadian public authorities due to their proven success in deterring crime, aiding in official criminal investigations and restoring a sense of safety in the areas where they are present.

An Effective Deterrent

Even the most uncomplicated criminal minds can deduce that having their actions caught on video increases their chances of being caught and convicted. As a result, video surveillance of public places has been shown to significantly reduce the incidence of crimes against personal property and street crimes such as thefts and muggings, as well as violent crimes such as assault. Evidence from Great Britain suggests that, rather than shifting criminal activity from an area under surveillance to areas outside the scope of CCTV cameras, electronic surveillance actually reduces crime rates in districts adjacent to monitored zones.

Statistical findings from North America and the United Kingdom (UK) demonstrate the deterrent value of CCTV cameras. In New York City, fifteen social housing blocks that were fitted with video surveillance in 1997 experienced an average reduction in crime rates of 36 percent within one year. In the US city of Atlanta, Georgia the 2004 installation of video surveillance in the neighbourhood of Buckhead coincided with a 30 percent reduction in the incidence of crime within six months. The Welsh city of Cardiff introduced video surveillance on its streets in 1994; two years later, the number of assaults in the city had fallen by 12 percent. Similarly, the city of Airdrie in Scotland experienced a 21 percent drop in crimes committed during the two years after CCTV cameras were installed in its downtown core.

A Perfect Witness

Electronic surveillance will never be able to eradicate crime altogether. When crimes do occur, however, wiretap recordings, video footage and email monitoring are invaluable in securing the convictions that keep dangerous offenders off the streets. The records provided by electronic surveillance are often objective and detailed, particularly in comparison to the notorious unreliability of eyewitness testimony. Demonstrating the value of electronic evidence, police in the UK city of Newcastle found that after CCTV cameras were installed, 99 percent of offenders whose actions were caught on tape pled guilty to the charges against them and between 1991 and 1997, CCTV footage directly led to the arrest of 2800 offenders. In Airdrie, the city’s surveillance system helped police to solve 16 percent more crimes within two years of installation.

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The Canadian experience with video surveillance of public spaces indicates that CCTV cameras can be instrumental in apprehending offenders. In the city of Sudbury, Ontario, which installed CCTV cameras in its downtown public spaces in 1997, video footage was critical in bringing the perpetrator of a vicious assault to justice in a high-profile case. In a similar incident, police officers in Toronto used the footage from CCTV cameras to obtain and publicize a photo of the perpetrator of a fatal stabbing in 2006. The technique was successful; the suspect turned himself into police within an hour of the footage being released. This anecdotal evidence of the witness value of CCTV cameras is confirmed by statistical findings.

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From Public Safety to National Security

Bringing criminals to justice increases public safety and restores citizens’ confidence in the criminal justice system. Prominent successes in Canada featuring the use of electronic surveillance in police investigations have included the seizure of large amounts of illegal drugs and the conviction of members of criminal organizations, as well as the detection and disruption of a major terrorist threat to Canadian security.

The passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act removed many legal impediments to the use of electronic surveillance for the purpose of monitoring suspected terrorists. The importance of this legislative development was demonstrated in June 2006, when a large-scale surveillance operation in Southern Ontario conducted under the act’s provisions led to the apprehension and arrest of seventeen terrorists accused of planning attacks on various targets across Ontario. As terrorist cells increasingly use the Internet and electronic devices to communicate with one another, and to plot violent attacks, it is imperative that the law gives police officers the corresponding powers to address these threats.

Electronic surveillance cannot always prevent terrorist attacks from succeeding. However, footage from CCTV cameras can be an extremely valuable element of investigations after the fact, offering valuable insights to help detect, prevent and avert attacks in the future. Following suicide attacks in the city of London, England in July 2005, CCTV footage provided crucial clues to the events of the day and allowed investigators to definitively identify the perpetrators. When similar attacks were attempted, but failed, two weeks later, intensive scrutiny of footage from 15,000 CCTV videos led to the apprehension and arrest of seven accomplices within a matter of weeks.

Security Trumps Privacy

Despite ample evidence of the multifaceted value of CCTV monitoring, the legality of video surveillance in public spaces remained a debated issue in Canada in the early twenty-first century. By 2008, no legal ruling had been made for or against the use of CCTV cameras, while Bill C-416 on the expansion of police surveillance powers on the Internet was left to languish by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration in 2007. The visible benefits to public safety and national security that electronic surveillance has produced, along with strong evidence of the deadly threats facing Canadian society, should reassure legislators that concerns over legal intrusions on the privacy of citizens are comparatively trivial.

Faced with the threat of covert, electronically savvy terrorist networks as well as gun, gang and drug-related violence, Canadians are aware that their personal protection will require some compromises. The least of these involves accepting the possibility of being videotaped by CCTV cameras in public places. In 2005, almost three quarters of Canadian respondents to an opinion poll by the Strategic Counsel favoured the presence of public video surveillance. For ordinary law-abiding citizens, the possibility of being filmed in public is a small price to pay for the increased peace of mind and quality of life that survei
llance brings. In fact, CCTV cameras are often introduced at the instigation of concerned public groups. This was the case in Sudbury, where citizens and downtown business operators felt that their safety and productivity were being jeopardized by high incidence of crime in the area.

There are several ways to ensure that electronic surveillance methods protect the public without trespassing unnecessarily on their privacy. Wiretap surveillance must always be subject to the limits of a legal warrant. The presence of CCTV cameras in public places should be indicated using conspicuous signs stating the presence, nature and purpose of the electronic surveillance being used. Strict rules governing the monitoring, storage and retention of video footage and electronic data can protect surveillance records from abuse. These simple and easily enforceable safeguards can ensure that the compromise between personal privacy and public security is a minimal, and ultimately highly advantageous, trade-off.

Conclusion

The accuracy, objectivity and prolonged time commitment that electronic surveillance devices offer are unparalleled by any human counterpart, no matter how dedicated or well-trained. Canadians deserve the best protection that authorities have to offer, and electronic surveillance must be a critical element in any security strategy in a twenty-first century developed state. The consequences of being technologically unprepared are simply too costly to justify complacency.

By Andrew Cassola

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