OTTAWA – It’s the time when tourists usually begin posing for family photos with the newly strung holiday lights on Parliament Hill.
This year the festive visits will almost certainly be captured by RCMP lenses, too.
The Mounties have recently added new video cameras near pedestrian entrances and a vehicle screening facility along Wellington Street, the boulevard in front of the Parliament Buildings.
The RCMP and its Hill security partners have also bowed to the wishes of the federal privacy commissioner by posting signs on bollards that read: 24 hour video surveillance for security of the grounds.
The notices mark the end of a behind-the-scenes tussle between the commissioner’s office and the RCMP about whether people visiting Parliament Hill should be advised of the unblinking electronic eyes that expand video coverage of the precinct.
“This is a positive outcome stemming from our work to achieve this with the RCMP and others involved in managing Parliament Hill, including Public Works and the National Capital Commission,” said Scott Hutchinson, a spokesman for the privacy commissioner.
The commissioner has been concerned for some time about the plans to add 134 cameras to the existing 50 on the Hill to monitor exterior perimeters of all buildings, pedestrian doors and assembly areas — particularly given that the Hill’s sprawling lawn is a traditional venue for protests and rallies.
Some cameras have the ability to record panoramic views and closeup images, and the RCMP will monitor the video stream round-the-clock, with simultaneous feeds to House of Commons and Senate security personnel, the commissioner says.
Internal RCMP notes released under the Access to Information Act say the plan is to increase video coverage of the parliamentary precinct to 100 per cent from 35 per cent.
The Mounties say the system is intended to guard against a possible attack by detecting abandoned packages, suspicious activity and disturbances.
Initially, there was a deliberate plan not to post signs notifying people of the enhanced video surveillance.
That prompted the privacy commissioner’s office to press the matter with the RCMP, referring the police force to the commissioner’s guidelines for video surveillance of public places by law enforcement, which say signs should be posted.
The commissioner’s staff received an onsite briefing in June last year.
At the meeting, the RCMP demonstrated the system used by monitoring officers to document the reasons for using the camera zoom functions to capture closeup images of individuals and their actions, followup correspondence disclosed under the access law shows.
These logs are kept for 90 days and the video feeds for 30 days.
The commissioner suggested “these policies be reviewed to ensure that data is retained for the minimal amount of time necessary to fulfil the limited purpose of the Parliament Hill surveillance.”
The commissioner’s staff also flagged concerns about any plans to incorporate new features into the surveillance system — such as audio monitoring, facial recognition, subject tracking or motion detection.
Hutchinson said the privacy commissioner’s office would expect to see an advance assessment of the privacy implications if changes to the system are planned.