Vancouver’s closed-circuit TV public-surveillance system guidelines contradict privacy pledge

City told B.C. government closed-circuit television images wouldn’t be stored, but the policy shows this isn’t the case.

The City of Vancouver got a $400,000 provincial government grant to expand its closed-circuit television (CCTV) public-surveillance system—then ignored the commitments it made to protect citizens’ privacy. At least, that’s what’s suggested by two seemingly contradictory documents recently obtained by the Georgia Straight through freedom-of-information requests: the city’s CCTV privacy-impact assessment and its CCTV policy guidelines.  Read more in Georgia Straight.

Forced Drugging of Seniors Still Increasing

Ombudsperson, BCCLA and Greens criticize BC’s draconian laws.

I WAS READING THE CORONER’S REPORT on Kathleen Palamarek and something didn’t seem right. I’d been following her story since 2006. This was a diminutive, timid, 88-year-old nursing home resident with dementia and a heart condition, who’d been somewhat controversially diagnosed with dementia-related psychosis. She’d died of a heart attack. The coroner had found the antipsychotic olanzapine in her body.

Palamarek hadn’t been taking olanzapine willingly; she’d frequently complained about feeling woozy and “drugged up.” She couldn’t refuse the drug, though, because her doctors had declared her incapable and, when she’d protested, they’d certified her under BC’s Mental Health Act (MHA). Antipsychotics are being used increasingly in seniors’ homes as chemical restraints to pacify and control people. But Health Canada has issued the highest possible warnings to doctors that antipsychotics are “not approved for the treatment of patients with dementia-related psychosis” and that these powerful tranquillizers have been linked to a near-doubling of death rates in the elderly, mostly from heart attacks.

Yet here’s what coroner Stan Lajoie wrote about Kathleen Palamarek’s heart attack: “Death was clearly and unequivocally due to natural causes.” There was not so much as a hint anywhere in his seven-page report that her heart attack might have been linked to a drug known to dramatically increase heart attacks in the heart-weakened elderly. Why?

Click here for the rest of the article in April’s Focus magazine.

Privacy Commissioner Slams BC Surveillance Program

Documents suggest BC Solicitors General and the RCMP have been misleading the public for years.

“THERE’S NOTHING, in my view, to be alarmed about,” said Victoria Police Chief Jamie Graham. He was speaking at February’s Reboot Privacy and Security Conference in Victoria, to 200 privacy experts, academics, and government and corporate executives from around North America, including Alberta Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton and BC Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

Graham was on a panel with Christopher Parsons, a UVic PhD candidate in political science and surveillance studies. Parsons was presenting findings from research done by him, me and tech expert and civil rights advocate Kevin McArthur into Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (findings first revealed in February’s Focus, “Hidden Surveillance”).

Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) involves equipping police cruisers with cameras and software that can read thousands of licence plates per hour and compare those plates to crime “hot lists.” The program operates as a joint effort between the RCMP, BC government and local BC police forces, ostensibly to primarily catch stolen vehicles, unlicensed drivers, and prohibited drivers.

Click here to read the rest of the article in the March issue of Focus.

Hidden Surveillance

Not many people know that local Victoria, BC police and the RCMP have already begun building a massive public traffic surveillance system. And no one knows how they’re going to use it.

The A News reporter and Nanaimo constable interwove: “amazing,” “blown away,” “overwhelming.” “This will revolutionize the way we police,” proclaimed Vancouver police in The Province.

Both media and police across North America have engaged in such trumpeting about Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR). The RCMP and BC government piloted ALPR in 2006 and have expanded it rapidly. BC now has 42 police cruisers equipped with the technology, including one with the Victoria Police Department (VicPD), one in Saanich, and two in our regional Integrated Road Safety Unit.

Normally, area police manually key in plate numbers to check suspicious cars in the databases of the Canadian Police Information Centre and ICBC. With ALPR, for $27,000, a police cruiser is mounted with two cameras and software that can read licence plates on both passing and stationary cars. According to the vendors, thousands of plates can be read hourly with 95-98 percent accuracy. These plate numbers are automatically compared for “hits” against ICBC and Canadian Police Information Centre “hot lists” of stolen vehicles; prohibited, unlicensed and uninsured drivers; and missing children. When such “hits” occur, plate photos are automatically stamped with time, date, and GPS coordinates, and stored. The officer will investigate details in the above-mentioned databases directly, and may pull over suspect vehicles.

At least, that’s how the popular story goes, and it sounds wonderful. However, some news stories have quoted academics or civil rights advocates worried about what else this plate recognition technology is, or could be, used for. ALPR was developed by the British government in the 1990s to track movements of the Irish Republican Army. By 2007, the International Association of Police Chiefs was issuing a resolution calling for “all countries” to begin using ALPR and sharing population surveillance data for fighting gangs and terrorism. Today in the UK, ALPR is used for charging tolls, “risk profiling” travellers, and tracking or intercepting people using cars photographed near protests.

But most Canadians’ concerns have been assuaged with statements like that in a Times Colonist article: “Both federal and provincial privacy commissioners have approved the system, which must comply with federal privacy legislation, said [RCMP Sgt. Warren] Nelson.”

Yet no one in Canada has actually investigated either police claims or the complaints.

That lack motivated me, along with Christopher Parsons, a University of Victoria PhD candidate in privacy and surveillance studies, and Kevin McArthur, a web architecture developer and high-tech civil rights advocate, to form a research team.

Federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart’s office gave us our first shock of many.

Clicke here to read the rest of this article in the February, 2012 issue of Focus magazine.

Put Your Money Where Your Municipality Is

On January 31, a panel of local experts will talk about new ways to ensure your savings, RRSPs, and investment dollars help strengthen our community sustainability and resilience. We offer a preview of some of the ideas they’ll address.

During her presentation at the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria’s recent annual general meeting, economic development expert Nicole Chaland brought out a perspective-shifting number: $360 million.

That’s how much Greater Victoria residents invested last year in Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs)—enough to effectively double last year’s growth in Greater Victoria’s entire gross domestic product. Yet instead of boosting our economy or helping improve our community, most of that enormous wealth of ours was simply drained away into globalized mutual funds.

If we could create some sort of local pool for RRSPs, Chaland said, “What we’d be doing is capturing money that’s already being invested, and we’d be making sure it’s invested locally.”

And that, says Community Social Planning Council director Rupert Downing, is what he’s setting out to do in the wake of Chaland’s feasibility report on community investment funds (CIF).

“This is a very exciting opportunity,” says Downing, who envisions such funds helping develop local affordable housing.

“There is a capital gap,” explains Downing. “The availability of subsidies [from governments] and mortgages from banks or credit unions doesn’t cover the full cost of developing market rental housing.” What we need, he says, is “patient capital,” where loans are relatively cheap and investors don’t need or expect to pull their money out in a hurry—like with RRSPs.

The Community Social Planning Council (often called the Community Council) recently coordinated meetings between BC provincial government representatives and their counterparts in Nova Scotia, where such community investment funds are already in operation, discussing tweaks to RRSP and venture capital tax credits that could facilitate the process here.

“The funds that work need a tax incentive,” says Downing. “That’s the optimum.”

A Cape Breton community investment fund has already captured two percent of their local RRSPs—if we could merely equal that here, that’d be $7.2 million annually.

Community investment funds around North America generally focus on supporting locally-owned businesses but, because of their broader mandate to foster overall community development, they usually come with an additional focus on improving local environmental sustainability, social justice, economic resilience and self-reliance. So aside from affordable housing developers, Downing points to City Harvest (an urban farming cooperative), City Green Solutions (a home-energy retrofitting non-profit), and Community Micro Lending (a provider of small loans to new entrepreneurs) as examples of the kinds of companies which often fall between the cracks when trying to raise conventional loan capital, but which could be readily helped through a CIF.

The Community Council is gathering a steering group to begin developing the business plan and legal framework for a regional community investment fund. So to anyone with business, financial, tax, legal or marketing expertise willing to do a little pro-bono work, says Downing, “We’d be very pleased to hear from them.” Downing will be speaking about the initiative at an upcoming community investment forum sponsored by Transition Victoria, Vancity and Focus. Along with Chaland, Downing, and new Victoria councillor Lisa Helps, who is a director of Community Micro Lending (see Focus, April, 2010), several other speakers will outline additional options for redirecting your dollars back into our local community.

One of those speakers will be Vancity community business banking account manager Rebecca Pearson.

“Just by banking with Vancity, you are investing in community,” notes Pearson, explaining that credit union regulations require virtually all of Vancity’s $14.5 billion in assets to be invested in British Columbia. And most of that, she says, stays in the Lower Mainland and Southern Vancouver Island.

“On top of that, we are focusing on community impact,” she adds. “So we’re not just investing locally, but we’re also making an effort to invest in the building blocks of a sustainable economy.”

Pearson points to the Root Cellar Village Green Grocer, Dockside Green, and the Victoria Car Share Co-op as examples of progressive local enterprises with which Vancity has been involved.

But exactly where your savings are invested is often not under an individual’s direct control, and so some Vancity members remain frustrated by the credit union’s investments in more conventional or less ethical businesses. Pearson says Vancity is developing options for those people, too.

“The most interesting thing that we’re working on right now for more direct connections between your dollars and where they get locally invested is the Resilient Capital Program,” says Pearson. Just starting up now in Victoria, but with a pilot project underway in Vancouver, the program gathers investors who can contribute $50,000 or more into a multimillion dollar pool. “Their money will be made available to social enterprises to help build resilient communities.”

In Vancouver, Vancity’s Resilient Capital Program recently helped support a major expansion to a non-profit that runs women’s shelters, and a revisioning of Save on Meats as a multifaceted social enterprise benefiting its impoverished Downtown Eastside neighbourhood through a restaurant serving all income levels, accessible work opportunities, and a rooftop vegetable garden.

“We’re still looking for depositors,” says Pearson. And to entrepreneurs with great ideas for improving local resilience, she adds, “We’re looking simultaneously for investment opportunities on the Island.”

That’s good news to Stephen Whipp, an ethical investment advisor with Manulife Securities Incorporated and vice-president of the Westshore Chamber of Commerce, who’ll also be speaking at the forum. Whipp says he constantly hears from prospective clients with a hunger for ethical investment opportunities that are specifically local.

“One issue that comes up over and over and over is people want to help,” says Whipp. “[Investors ask] ‘How do I help? Other than growing my own food, other than cutting back on how much I drive or increasing how much I use transit, how do I make my community a better place?’”

Due to regulations to protect us from scams, however, licensed brokers and investment advisers like Whipp are restricted to recommending opportunities that are listed on mainstream capital markets. So instead, Whipp provides financial and business advice to “put tools in the toolbox” that help people do their own “due diligence” when they examine local investment opportunities. Another approach Whipp suggests people explore is community “investment clubs,” an ad hoc version of a community investment fund where small groups of people get together to share the costs and efforts of doing such due diligence.

But these are makeshift solutions which shouldn’t have to continue this way, argues Whipp. He hopes growing public demand will push governments, regulators, and investment firms with sufficiently large expert infrastructures to more proactively facilitate targeted, ethical, community investment opportunities.

“I think the credit unions have an ability to make a huge play in this area,” comments Whipp. “That in itself may make others pay attention to it.”

 

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, some would argue that trying to make money from money, while participating within a global financial system that’s arguably dubious at its core, is inherently antithetical to sustainability, social justice and community development. From this perspective, ethical investing is a tiny bandage over the gaping wound that’s brought our society to the brink of environmental, social and financial collapse.

Yet it’s difficult to deny that Vancity’s $14.5 billion, or Greater Victoria’s own $360 million annually in RRSPs, are amounts that could have far-reaching and profound societal impacts if directed creatively and progressively back into their source communities. Those aren’t mere bandage levels of money. And even if, after some hypothetical apocalypse, we were to pull out of the global economy altogether through an alternative local currency, we’d probably still need some infrastructure guided democratically by members, not unlike a credit union or community investment fund, to help manage that currency and provide expert guidance on where to funnel our collective financial resources. So why not explore what’s possible if we put our financial shoulders to the wheel right now?

John Ehrlich, another speaker at the forum, has already shown what’s possible, even with just a little upfront investment and no complicated legal or regulatory frameworks.

While family farms are disappearing across Canada, his Alderlea biodynamic farm near Duncan has been expanding at 30 percent annually since 2003. This year, 200 families will invest on average $450 each as “shareholders” in exchange for weekly veggie bins. Aside from being emotionally uplifting to have so many people “committed” to helping your farm survive, says Ehrlich, this “Community Supported Agriculture” system improves cash flow, efficiency and marketing.

“The biggest thing is having the money up front, before the season begins, purchasing seeds and tools and other things,” he explains. “And we know exactly what to grow and how much to put out for the families each week.”

Starting a community-supported farm, says Ehrlich, is as simple as bringing some community members together to help stabilize a farmer’s livelihood by providing upfront payments for produce at near-retail rates. But our next regional hurdle is figuring out how to rally enough local resources to actually purchase land for farming. Ehrlich has been closely involved with The Land Conservancy’s experiment with Keating Farm, and will outline those efforts at the forum.

“I think we’re at an incredible crossroads,” summarizes Whipp. “We have a huge opportunity which may never be there again, to show people that you can do business in a different way.”

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(Rob Wipond discloses that he has $200 invested in a maintenance and landscaping company through Community Micro Lending.)

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The Community Investment Forum is 7 pm Tuesday, January 31 at Ambrosia Conference Centre, 638 Fisgard Street. Admission is free. For more information see “Events” at www.TransitionVictoria.ca.

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Originally published in Focus, January 2012.