Square One retailers failing to comply with privacy laws

Square One shopping centre Jim Wilkes/Toronto Star

Stores at Square One are failing to follow new federal rules for operating video surveillance cameras in their businesses, according to a study by a professor of information studies at the University of Toronto.

Andrew Clement, co-founder of the Identity, Privacy and Security Institute, found that only 30 per cent of the stores in one of Canada’s largest malls complied with the signage requirements of the federal Personal Information, Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

The five-year-old group is a U of T-financed organization that studies and presses for security systems that maintain the privacy, freedom and safety of the individual and the broader community. It inks up with national and international researchers.

The Act was passed in April 2000 “to support and promote electronic commerce by protecting personal information that is collected, used or disclosed in certain circumstances, by providing for the use of electronic means to communicate or record information or transactions.”

The professor and his graduate students found that most of the cameras in Square One did not have any kind of sign alerting customers to their use. The group also studied security cameras at the Eaton Centre, where there was a high-profile shooting last year in the food court.

They found none of the cameras met the minimum standards of the law, which require stores to state the purpose of the video surveillance, post signs outside their entrances alerting customers about the use of cameras and a contact number where people can find out how to get access to a copy of any footage that contains their image.

Elana Price, marketing director for Square One, said the mall does alert shoppers that there are cameras within. “Speaking solely on behalf of Square One Shopping Centre, all mall entrances have signs to make patrons aware that CCTV cameras are being used on the premises. Square One also has a procedure in place to address any requests for the information captured on our video surveillance system,” she said.

Clement said the lack of compliance is due to lack of enforcement powers of the office of the privacy commission, and their inability to levy fines or other punitive actions for violations of the privacy law.

“The businesses basically operate with relative impunity here,” he told YourMississaugaBiz.com.

As a result of the lack of accountability, Clement said businesses don’t see an incentive to obey the bylaw, and argue signage would draw attention and make people feel uncomfortable knowing they were being videotaped.

However, change may soon be on the way.

In December last year, privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart appeared before a  House of Commons committee seeking changes to the privacy law.

She strongly recommended revisions and changes to her office’s enforcement powers, starting with mandatory breach notification and including financial consequences for egregious cases.

Stoddart cited other countries like the UK that are already implementing such legislation. “Such requirements would reinforce accountability and, with penalties, provide financial incentives to better protect Canadians’ personal information,” she said.

“Such penalties should be flexible and adaptable to circumstances so as not to unduly burden smaller organizations.”

“Indeed, I worry that if my counterparts continue to gain stronger powers, but Canada does not, Canada will fall behind in inspiring consumer confidence needed for the digital economy to thrive,” she said.

According to Clement, there could also be harsher penalties. Clement suggested the privacy commissioner’s office could shut down the businesses for non-compliance. similar to the situation restaurants face while they undergo health inspections.

Clement said lack of public education and awareness about the bylaw contributes to the lack of compliance. “People are pretty ignorant about the state of surveillance and also about their privacy rights,” he said.

Adil Hanif is a retail manager at a Square One store, and said he had no idea about the surveillance laws. “How would one even go find out about this law unless it was posted or broadcast somewhere?” he said. “I’m sure they’re not accessible, but not in an easy to get way.”

Professor Clement said consumer surveys his group has done show “some don’t care but as more people learn about it, they will care more.”s

“That’s why businesses take a very low profile and quietly 60-70 per cent don’t put up any sort of signage or draw attention to it.”

Hanif agrees and says he doesn’t have a problem with the video cameras as a consumer because he’s not doing anything wrong when he’s shopping. “I think it’s almost a forgone conclusion that as soon as you come into the mall you’re on camera,” he said. “I don’t think you’re necessarily being watched but it’s a deterrent for would-be shoplifters.”

But Clement said failing to put up signage about the cameras undermines this argument and that businesses need to be more upfront about what they’re doing. “As long as businesses stick these cameras up, some unobtrusively, you can’t argue [people are] consenting because they don’t know,” he said.

With cameras becoming increasingly ubiquitous in stores, businesses and even public areas, Clement said it’s an important to make sure there’s sufficient regulation in place.

“We regulate all kinds of other things that generally are benign but we know that they can cause harm on occasion,” he said. “Food, elevators, roads. If you look at their safety requirements, their notification and signage requirements, why not video surveillance?”


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