Condos rethink cameras over privacy concerns

Ruling, complaints prompt strata councils to tighten reins on surveillance

"Condo TV" is fading to black in condo buildings around the province as strata councils draw a line between security and surveillance.

Many condominium buildings feature high-tech security systems, some with live feeds to every unit of the comings and goings in entranceways, parkades and common rooms.

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The B.C. Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has long had guidelines covering audio and video surveillance in condominiums.

But an order last year is prompting strata councils to take another look. How cameras were being used in the Shoal Point condo in James Bay brought the issue into sharper focus.

In that case, argued before adjudicator Jay Fedorak, some residents of Shoal Point complained that cameras, in addition to security, were being used to collect evidence of minor bylaw infractions -- such as not carrying their dogs through the lobby or propping open doors.

Video cameras, including those in the common areas such as the amenity room or the pool, were being monitored regularly by members of the strata council and were intrusive, they said.

"The common areas are where we gather to socialize, where we play bridge, where we exercise," they said in their complaint. "It is like a family space. Although we do not expect the same level of privacy in our shared space, we do expect to be free from unwanted monitoring or surveillance, whether overt or covert, by the strata council."

The Shoal Point strata corporation said that of the 10 video cameras in the complex, seven covered external points of entry. All residents were provided with a copy of its policy guide, which said the video surveillance was for "the detection and investigation of significant breaches of the rules and bylaws of Shoal Point which are defined [as] ... involving security, safety, or protection of common property or in response to complaints relating to excessive noise, suspicious behaviour, property damage, vandalism, theft or other concerns."

Fedorak ruled that while video surveillance of external doors and the parkade was reasonable, surveillance used to enforce any strata bylaws was not.

He said there was not enough evidence to support the need for surveillance of the pool or fitness areas and ordered those cameras dismantled. While feeds from some cameras to individual units might be popular, there was no evidence about how they increased security, he said.

He also found that routine daily viewing of images from the cameras in the absence of a complaint or evidence of unauthorized entry was not reasonable.

Most condos are probably in compliance with privacy regulations, said Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Home Owners Association of B.C.

But compliance is complaint-driven so new situations pop up, he said.

One new condominium he visited recently was streaming live feeds from all of its cameras -- including one in the pool area -- to screens at the concierge desk that were visible from the street. "It was just mind-boggling. I could see someone swimming in the pool," he said.

Gioventu said cameras can be used for security provided people know they are there and the strata has passed bylaws permitting them.

There should not be live streaming to units of security video feeds other than of the main entrances, Gioventu said.

"We call it condo TV. Most buildings you can't click into a different channel to see a different part of the building on the cameras. I think if a strata corporation does that, I think they would be crossing the boundaries of what's acceptable," he said.

Jim Burrows, acting executive director for the privacy commissioner's office, said the Personal Information Protection Act puts a lot of emphasis on reasonableness. "So if you need it in a certain place, you have to be able to actually prove that you need it," he said.

It's a common misperception that closed-circuit cameras make an area safer, he said. "There's not much evidence that it really does provide much security," Burrows said.

"There's obviously been singular matters where it's been useful in finding someone after the fact, but not much evidence that it actually prevents anything."

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