Friday, June 15, 2018

On voyeurism while urinating: The strange tale of the Opus Hotel video cam

I first heard about this story in April from a co-worker of mine, the wife of Paul Razzell. I could hardly believe what I was hearing, and my old reporter instincts came to life in an instant as I encouraged her to have Paul call me so we could do a story.

The question at the heart of the story: Is it OK to film people as they go about their business in the bar for the entertainment of men as they pee? Like Paul Razzell, I found the idea revolting and was dumbstruck that it had been a practice at Yaletown's Opus Hotel since 2002, apparently with few complaints.

I thought I'd found an interested outlet for the story after I heard back from the Georgia Straight, which was interested in me writing the piece for them. For whatever reason, I never heard from them again after I submitted the story. So here it is, a blog post now.

I found it a fascinating example of the weird ideas that come into people's heads as "entertaining and fun," though it's too bad it will never be tested through our privacy laws. The resolution of the issue just as a complaint went to BC's Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner ended that possibility. Not a coincidence, I'm thinking, but at least Razzell did get his wish to see the practice ended.

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It’s last call for the Opus Hotel’s 16-year-old practice of featuring a video feed of bar customers on monitors above the men’s urinals.

A complaint to BC’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) was filed May 3 by Victoria man Paul Razzell. He’s been trying for the last six months to persuade the Yaletown hotel to stop the practice. He stumbled upon it in November after visiting the coffee shop next door and being pointed to the Opus washroom when he asked about facilities.

Contacted for comment about the privacy complaint, Opus general manager Nicholas Gandossi said the hotel is planning a major washroom renovation this month (June). The monitors will be removed as part of that reno. The video feed from the bar camera is gone already, replaced by CNN, he adds.

“I know this fellow felt it wasn’t right, that there were privacy issues,” says Gandossi, who contends that nobody else has complained about the video feed. “But in the privacy context, we were never trying to cross the boundary with this. [Razzell’s] timing is perfect, because we’ve been planning an update of the washrooms for a while. And when even one person says he doesn’t like what we’re doing – well, it did get me thinking. “

Razzell says he was stunned last fall to be in front of the hotel urinals and realize he was looking at a number of large monitors on the wall showing a live feed of bar patrons and staff.

He went into the bar to confirm that’s what he was viewing, eventually spotting the discreet camera mounted high on the wall. He then sent his wife into the women’s washroom to see whether there were monitors in there as well. (There weren’t. But Gandossi says that up until the wiring fritzed out two or three years ago, the same feed was displayed in the mirror of the women’s washroom.)

Razzell wrote his first outraged email to Gandossi soon after. He told the hotel manager that the practice was not only an invasion of privacy, it was insulting and demeaning to the women unknowingly being watched by urinating men. It was all “so creepy and voyeuristic.”

Gandossi sees things differently.  The monitors were simply displaying the same images that anyone would see if they passed by on the sidewalk and looked in the bar window, he says. The feed isn’t recorded, or broadcast anywhere other than in the men’s washroom.

The Opus has always gone for a bit of “tongue-in-cheek” and voyeurism, adds Gandossi, noting that its hotel rooms have windows between the bathrooms and the living rooms.

“But this is voyeuristic in an ugly way,” says Razzell. “There are the bar patrons’ faces, broadcasting in proximity to guys peeing. It permits men to observe women without their knowing it.”

Is it legal? OIPC communications director Erin Beattie says the office can’t comment on any case that it hasn’t reviewed, but noted that all 500,000 or so private organizations in BC – whether churches, schools, businesses, unions, charities or Yaletown hotels – are governed by the Personal Information Protection Act.

On the issue of videotaping people, PIPA is considerably more restrictive than the act that governs the public sector, says Beattie. A case can be made for video surveillance to prevent or solve a crime, she says – installing security cameras in a parkade, for instance. But what happens to that footage, and who it’s shared with, has to meet tests around consent and reasonableness.

For private organizations, getting consent typically comes down to posting a bold sign at the entrance that says some version of “There’s video surveillance here,” says Beattie.  That way, a customer can choose not to enter.

“If we get a complaint about video surveillance, the questions we ask are: Do they have consent? Is it reasonable under the circumstances to collect these images? What authority do they have to collect it? That’s how we determine if it’s legal,” says Beattie.

 “But even after that, there are further considerations, such as whether that information is being disclosed to people outside the organization, and for what reason.”

The key considerations under BC privacy law are collection, use and disclosure. A private organization might be within the law to collect certain kinds of information through video surveillance, says Beattie, but it could still be breaking the law if the way that information is used – or who it’s shared with – fails the test of reasonableness and consent.

Some video surveillance gets a pass. Audiences at sporting events are presumed to be consenting (the Rogers Arena “Kiss Cam” being one such example). But “very few applications allow collection without consent,” says Beattie – and that consent has to come either on or before the information is collected.

Razzell says that even if what the hotel was doing turned out to be legal, it’s morally unacceptable, most especially in a time when campaigns like #MeToo have brought global attention to sexual harassment, abuse and rape. The high height of the camera alone was a virtual invitation to men to peek down the tops of women, he adds.

While Gandossi asserts there have been almost no complaints about the video feed in 16 years, Razzell says he posted his discovery on Facebook last fall and soon had a long list of comments from others who were equally outraged and disgusted. He’s been pushing hard since then to convince the hotel to stop.

“This is not 2002 anymore,” says Razzell. “We don’t want to permit things like this to be normalized in our world. If there was ever a time to do the right thing and stop this, now’s the time.”

Done, says Gandossi: “It was fun back in 2002, but we’ve got to move on. We’ve got to evolve.”