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Reviewed by:
  • Panoptic Dreams: Streetscape Video Surveillance in Canada
  • Sandra Robinson, PhD candidate (ABD)
Sean P. Hier Panoptic Dreams: Streetscape Video Surveillance in Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010, 328 p.

The title of Sean Hier's newly published book could easily suggest a somewhat utopian dream world of panoptic, totalizing observation by video camera. The author alerts readers early on, however, of amuch more ambivalent picture concerning both the utility of closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance and the technology's implications for Canada's privacy framework. Advocates of public CCTV may consider streetscape monitoring programs as expansive mechanisms of disciplinary control, but, as Hier sets out to document, CCTV surveillance does not always meet desired goals. There is, as the author reveals through a thorough review of 13 case studies of CCTV monitoring in cities across Canada between 1981 and 2005, "no homogenous them" watching over an "homogenous us" but, rather, an assemblage of law-enforcement officials, concerned citizens, politicians, and business people, each with their own reasons for championing CCTV surveillance (p. xvii). CCTV program development is often triggered by one or more signal crimes or events (unexpected and often violent episodes) that prompt crime-prevention and deterrence strategies in cities, and while all who pass by a street-level camera fall under its gaze, individuals of lower socio-economic status, aboriginal peoples and other visible minorities, youth, and the disenfranchised populating many of Canada's cities are disproportionately targeted (pp. 26, 221). In mapping out the history of streetscape video surveillance in Canada, Hier methodically details the interplay not just between the aforementioned groups, but also among the concerned citizens, activist groups, and privacy advocates who have opposed public video surveillance. The experiences in each case play out against the sometimes confusing regulatory landscape that has evolved alongside the diffusion of video surveillance but has slowly solidified around the locus of a pragmatic privacy approach by Canada's privacy policy community. Hier documents a fascinating history of CCTV monitoring that can at times seem quintessentially Canadian: Anglo-Canada ignored Quebec's early experience with CCTV surveillance, and this impeded development of the privacy policy framework and best-practices guidelines (p. 32). The author also details the efforts of former privacy commissioner George Radwanski to build resistance to CCTV surveillance through a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge that was eventually withdrawn after Radwanski resigned as privacy commissioner over charges of financial wrongdoing (charges on which he has since been exonerated). The issue of the constitutionality of public video monitoring thus faded away, consolidating the "pragmatic, reactive, complaints-based approach" under the auspices of federal and provincial privacy commissions (p. 100). Hier's volume is asmuch a history of Canada's privacy policy framework as it is a history of public streetscape surveillance in Canada. [End Page 151]

Although Hier is careful to include the range of experiences with streets-cape CCTV programs across Canada, the successes and the failures, he sometimes appears overly cautious in his critical sociology of surveillance. On the face of his empirical evidence, he might have made a stronger, more explicit critique of the role of surveillance under neo-liberalism, of its bureaucratic exercise of power through the collection of personal information via monitoring systems. Hier acknowledges that CCTV monitoring programs are most often articulated along the well-worked logic of the panopticon, through which asymmetrical power relations enable "privileged members of society to impose systems of surveillance on the general population" (p. 15); yet he is keen to avoid essentializing the significance of CCTV surveillance and streetscape monitoring in Canada. He makes it clear in the book's introduction, as in its conclusion, that he did not want to set out a strong position for or against CCTV monitoring of public spaces, reasoning that the complexity of CCTV surveillance requires a more balanced review. Hier's study shines a light on the process, configurations, stakeholders, and policy landscape of public CCTV that can serve as a springboard for further research, but it might also have highlighted some of the troubling issues surveillance presents for Canadian society and law—for example, the amendments to the Privacy Act (as through Bill...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0227
Print ISSN
0829-3201
Pages
pp. 151-153
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-07
Open Access
No
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