Keeping watch: Security cameras to monitor crime, community spaces in Drayton Valley

Come the end of September, 10 locations in Drayton Valley will be under the constant, steady watch of CCTV cameras — eyes in the sky for the central Alberta community of 7,000.

The town, 145 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, says it's not trying to make residents feel like Big Brother is watching.

Instead, the aim is to deter and help investigate crimes.

"This is more safety and security related, as well as making the day-to-day life of our community better through new technology," Coun. Amila Gammana told CBC News last week.

Five cameras will monitor intersections, providing analytics on traffic flow. The other five will livestream scenes from outdoor community spaces to the town website, so people can see if parks are busy and the town can gather insights on public use and maintenance needs.

Faces and licence plates captured on the livestreams will be blurred automatically, but that doesn't bring much comfort to resident Cheyanne Gauthier.

She said cameras would be more useful in back alleys and residential areas, instead of places like the skate park, Rotary Park and the Omniplex parking lot.

Eric Risberg/Associated Press and Kory Siegers/CBC

"My privacy concerns are about children — that's the biggest thing — [particularly in] public places where these cameras are going to be and how safe the security is in the day of technology where everybody can get into anything," said Gauthier, a mom of three.

"Do we really know how safe this is for our community?"

Video taken during the six-month pilot project will be stored on an encrypted server, said Douglas Self, a representative for Telus, which is funding the project.

When you don't have the information blurred or encrypted, it can be used for snooping, for non-essential purposes. - Ann Cavoukian, Global Privacy & Security by Design Centre

Encryption — coding or locking video so it's not easily accessible — is critical, former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian said.

"When you don't have the information blurred or encrypted, it can be used for snooping, for non-essential purposes," said Cavoukian, now the executive director of Toronto-based Global Privacy & Security by Design Centre. 

"That's why the blurring aspect is excellent."

Notices should be posted beside each camera, Cavoukian said.

The town has yet to determine if it will post signs in all 10 locations, said Coun. Fayrell Wheeler, but there will be notices on the outer edges of the community.

Cavoukian also said privacy can be protected by requiring a warrant when police request access to footage.

The town won't be doing that. Instead, RCMP will file formal requests for footage they believe serves an investigative purpose.

Peter Evans/CBC

"We wanted to help the RCMP in any of their investigations as much as we could," Wheeler said, adding the project complies with Alberta's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

She said the project could serve as an innovative, technology-based method for enhancing community safety, as opposed to hiring more RCMP.

'Anything's worth a shot'

Local RCMP say they'll request access only for investigative purposes.

Traffic violations won't be included in the scope of the project.

"There's not going to be anyone sitting in front of a monitor watching people while they go everywhere. It's only going to be an as-needed basis," Staff Sgt. Malcolm Callihoo said.

"[Security cameras are] something that can assist us if something were to happen. I think it's a very positive step that the town is taking."

Peter Evans/CBC

Drayton Valley saw a rise in property crime with the economic downturn in 2014, Callihoo said. Crime has been on the decline in recent months, but vehicle theft, vandalism and break-and-enters remain a problem.

It's something Dale Blatkewicz sees often.

His business, Bald Eagle Plumbing & Heating, sits across the street from the recycling depot, where one of the cameras will be posted.

Peter Evans/CBC

The town hopes it will deter people from dumping garbage at the depot, but Blatkewicz is more concerned with stopping the property crime he sees in the area. He had to lock up the scrap copper he used to keep in the yard after some was stolen.

"You look at a lot of the big cities that have these cameras all over the place. Does it help? I don't really think so," he said. "But they can try. Anything's worth a shot."

Blatkewicz said he's a fan of the opportunity the cameras provide for monitoring and protecting the safety of children playing in public spaces.

"For privacy for me, I'm not that worried about it," he said. "Is it really going to do anything? I guess we'll have to wait and see."

The pilot could continue or expand if the town deems it a success. That will depend on public use of the cameras and if they prove useful for deterring and investigating crime.