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Whitehorse schools using surveillance cameras violates the privacy act: commissioner

The commissioner issued an investigation into video surveillance in seven schools
Video surveillance is used in seven Whitehorse schools. (File image)

The Yukon’s privacy commissioner has found that the department of Education is using video surveillance without authorisation under the privacy act.

The commissioner recommended the department cease the surveillance immediately — a directive that has been ignored by the department.

An investigation was launched after a complaint about video surveillance was submitted last February. The commissioner’s investigation report, dated June 14, was published on Nov. 16. Diane McLeod-McKay was the Yukon’s privacy commissioner at the time of the investigation.

Video surveillance is being used in seven Whitehorse schools, the report says: F.H. Collins Secondary School, Vanier Catholic Secondary School, Ghùch Tlâ Community School, Porter Creek Secondary School, École Whitehorse Elementary School, CSSC Mercier and École Émilie Tremblay.

The Education department says individual schools decide whether to install cameras in collaboration with school boards or councils. McLeod-McKay noted that it’s unclear who deemed video surveillance as allowable in the first place.

The department said there are 67 cameras at F.H. Collins recording both inside and outside areas. The latter two French immersion schools employ 14 cameras outdoors. Further details of camera use at the other four schools aren’t included in the public report.

The department’s reporting to McLeod-McKay shows cameras in some schools are aimed at the entrances of bathrooms and give “limited visibility” to the bathroom’s common areas.

There are also cameras in areas labelled “theatre multi purpose room,” “interactive facilities” and “sport facilities.”

There are no cameras inside bathrooms, change rooms and most classrooms, the department says.

Some schools also keep “incident logs” noting students’ locations, timestamped behaviour and actions, the report continues.

The Education department says the video footage doesn’t include audio and is retained between 7 and 14 days.

The footage would generally be used to identify people through their approximate age, gender, skin colour and mannerisms, the department says.

The commissioner found this qualifies as personal information under the Yukon’s privacy act. Beyond those physical characteristics, McLeod-McKay determined the footage could also be used to infer personal information about someone’s medical condition, emotional state, sexual orientation or religion.

McLeod-McKay deemed this constitutes a significant amount of highly sensitive information.

The privacy act generally requires public bodies to collect personal information directly from individuals, the report explains. Collecting such information without active consent should be avoided unless it’s absolutely necessary, and even then, the minimum amount possible should be collected.

The Education department submitted that surveillance was deemed necessary for safe operations in some schools.

It continued that some schools require video to capture bullying; deter and identify forced entry; and to deter and capture acts of vandalism.

McLeod-McKay questions the necessity of surveillance to solve issues of vandalism and violence, saying there is “little evidence” that cameras actually work as a deterrent, citing the B.C. commissioner’s office and the Alberta Law Review.

Research suggests that surveillance cameras capture innocent behaviour out of context and without consent, which is invasive and can lead to incorrect assumptions about behaviour with negligible benefits to safety, McLeod-McKay cites.

The commissioner concludes that video surveillance isn’t necessary in schools unless the department can demonstrate that students’ safety or school property is at significant risk; that the risk is mitigated by surveillance; that the school community was consulted; and less intrusive methods were already attempted.

No evidence of this nature was provided by the department, McLeod-McKay continues.

McLeod-McKay calls the recordings of bathroom entrances “concerning” and finds schools aren’t limiting surveillance to the minimum amount necessary, as required by both the privacy act and the department’s own video surveillance policy.

The report concludes that the Education department isn’t authorised to use video surveillance, as proof of its necessity is lacking and there’s little evidence of consideration for childrens’ privacy.

McLeod-McKay recommended that the department immediately cease video surveillance and destroy all private information gathered from the tapes. If the department wants to reinstate the cameras, it should provide a privacy impact assessment to the commissioner’s office for review.

The department was given 15 days to respond, as required by the privacy act.

On Nov. 16, the commissioner’s office announced that the department had rejected the recommendations.

Contact Gabrielle Plonka at