Are surveillance cameras making people safer? We asked residents of 3400 Eglinton East

By: Steve da Silva & Harshita Singh

Over the last year in Toronto, we’ve seen disbelief and anger swell amongst people as they’ve learned that the police in this city have “carded” some 1.2 million people between 2008-2013, with young black men being the most targeted group.  What has shocked people has been both the illegal and violating nature of the whole practice.  If you haven’t been a victim of this practice, just imagine what it must be like to be profiled, stopped, harassed and questioned about where you’re going and who you know.

Now, imagine if that invasion of your privacy extended right to your front door. You live in a place where your every movement in and out of your house was tracked, viewed, and the recordings of your actions are controlled by someone else. The people who control these cameras could be sitting at home, on their couch, watching you in real time.

Welcome to 3400 Eglinton Ave East, where the superintendents can watch the comings and goings of every resident from the comfort of their own living room.

As reported by BASICS recently, the conditions in this 16-story Scarborough high rise at Markham and Eglinton shock even those who have lived in Toronto’s “low-income” hoods most of our lives.  Water leaking from hallway ceilings. Rampant roach and bedbug infestations. Carpets that hadn’t seen a steam cleaner in years, and only finally ripped out this past November to leave exposed deadly slippery flooring. Elevators are in a chronic state of disrepair.  The father of one Caribbean family on the 6th floor recently told BASICS that he “got stuck halfway between the basement and first floor [back in October] with a pregnant woman and a kid. I had to pull them all out.”

Yet, with very few funds flowing to repairs, last year Premax Management Ltd somehow found the money to install surveillance cameras on every floor of the building.  Pointing in each direction when you exit the elevator, there are cameras recording the comings and goings of every person in the building.

Kim, a resident and mother on the 17th floor, describes her first encounter with these cameras:  “I just came out of my apartment one day and realized that there was a camera facing my door. As far as I know, there at least needs to be a notice put up if your landlord is watching you.”

Kim’s right. According to the guidelines set out by the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, prior to the installation of such a surveillance system, “consultations should be conducted with relevant stakeholders as to the necessity of the proposed video surveillance program and its acceptability to the public. Extensive public consultation should take place.” Such a consultation reportedly never happened.

A mother on the 9th floor, Benisha, who finally picked up and left the building this past November, told BASICS that back in June 2015 her entire load of laundry was stolen in the direct line of sight of the cameras. When she confronted one of the superintendents, Chamu, she was told that “That camera is not for all that stuff. It’s for when something happens in the building. If you have a problem with that, call the police… What do you want me to do about that right now? I tell you guys when you washing your clothes, ‘stay there, stay there’”.

Click here to listen to short audio segment from resident concerning stolen laundry

BASICS questioned the superintendent Chamu about the purpose of the surveillance cameras in the building, relaying concerns that residents had shared with us. Her response was brief: “Who has complaints with the cameras!? It’s for security.”  Chamu was more concerned with identifying those who were airing their grievances than giving a good explanation for why the cameras were installed. Again, more surveillance.

Abha*, an Indian mother who also lives in 3400, described two incidents where in spite of the existence of cameras, neither perpetrators nor lost property were ever located. “A year ago”, she says, “my friend saw a man looking lost, like he didn’t know where he was going in the building. My friend asked him if he was looking for something. He snatched her chain and ran down the staircase. We never found the chain though.”

Abha also relayed an incident about the cars of multiple residents being damaged in the parking lot. “It seemed as though the damage was intentional, as if someone had hit multiple cars in a row with a sharp rod of some sort.”  In the recent past, other residents have also reported to BASICS instances of their vehicles being damaged, even stolen, under the watchful eye of surveillance cameras. Residents reported that no action was taken by building management.

In six months of social investigation and literally hundreds of conversations by BASICS and allied community organizers, we have not come across a single story of the cameras being used to address people’s legitimate concerns about safety or protection of their personal belongings.  At least two residents specifically reported to us being robbed of their jewelry during building-related repairs.

But the problem at 3400 Eglinton is not that the cameras are going completely unused.

Many have reported that camera footage is indeed being used: used to harass residents about who visits their apartments, what personal consumer objects they own, and even the conversations they are having in the elevators or hallways.

In the spring of 2015, one single mother told a BASICS reporter that Chamu questioned her about a man who visited her apartment late. “She said to me: ‘You’re on welfare, you’re not supposed to be having any men over.’  A teenage girl residing on the 9th floor also reported that her mother was questioned about a man that had been in their unit. This man was her older brother, who came to stay with them for a few days.

A number of residents also believe that the cameras may also be equipped with audio. Karl Murray of the 6th floor told BASICS that: “You can say anything you want in the hallway, and they know about it. A lot of people are saying this. Somehow they know what people are talking about in their private conversations.”  A resident who wished not to be identified in this article backed up this suspicion by reporting that one of the few residents in the building who is close with the super told her earlier this year that the cameras are indeed audio equipped.

The ability of the cameras to record both movement and conversations disturbs many, particularly female residents. A resident and mother from the 6th floor, another Kim, also told BASICS that “I have to be conscious of what I’m wearing – it’s not like I’m wearing anything inappropriate, it’s just that it’s something I have to think about just outside my own home”. Michelle, who lives across from 6th floor Kim, said that “Women in this building do not feel safe… You should be able to have conversations without people using them against you.”

As we were talking to Kim on the 17th floor, one of the superintendents, Chet, arrived and threatened to remove BASICS correspondents from the building.

Though we could not acquire a legal opinion on the cameras prior to the print deadline on this article, a city inspector on site at 3400 Eglinton Ave this past October 2015 commented to a BASICS correspondent that personal surveillance of private activities seemed unlawful**.

Again, according to guidelines set out by the Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, “organizations should ensure that the proposed design and operation of the video surveillance system minimizes privacy intrusion to that which is absolutely necessary to achieve its required, lawful goals.”  

It’s not so clear if harassing residents, threatening people’s journalists, and ignoring people’s concerns about their personal belongings constitutes “lawful goals”, but that’s the law of the land at 3400 Eglinton Ave East.  

But like “the law” in general, as with police carding, when people don’t fight back, “the law” will oppress us. The “lawful” authorities will use illegal, criminal means to keep the people down. So it’s time to stand up.

*Name altered to respect privacy. Unlike the superintendents at 3400 Eglinton Ave E.
**Correction made at 7:36 PM on 27 December 2015. Original article read: “Though we could not acquire a legal opinion on the cameras prior to the print deadline on this article, a city inspector on site at 3400 Eglinton Ave this past October 2015 commented to a BASICS correspondent that the surveillance system seemed unlawful.”