Questions raised over retailers who shame shoplifters with photos

Alleged theft from a sex shop in Newfoundland led to posts on social media

A Newfoundland sex store’s social-media shaming of an alleged shoplifter has raised ethical questions around retailers who display security footage in a bid to catch thieves.

Provincial privacy commissioner Donovan Molloy has reportedly encouraged businesses to take such footage to police, rather than share images of people who have not been found guilty of a crime.

A downtown adult shop in St. John’s, N.L., shared images of a woman on social media this week, requesting the public’s help in identifying her.

“A Christmas dildo bandit has struck, Harry & Marv style, and we need your help to identify this sticky bandit,” the post read.

“The individual pictured decided to help herself to some of our Christmas toys, and we need your help to find her!”

The post was later updated saying the woman had been identified, but the photos had quickly spread with commenters poking fun at the alleged thief’s appearance and the humorous nature of the stolen object.

RELATED: Police in Ontario resort to ‘naming and shaming’ drunk drivers

The episode raised questions about the ethics and legality of sharing photos from security footage that implicate people in crimes.

Molloy gave several media interviews commenting on the practice, saying retailers who post footage to catch suspected thieves are sharing information in a way that conflicts with federal law, and that it often does more harm than good.

A spokesperson from Molloy’s office told The Canadian Press on Friday he was no longer taking media interviews on the topic because the issue falls under federal and not provincial jurisdiction.

In order for there to be legal consequences for public shaming through security footage, someone would have to complain to the office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

A spokesperson said in an email that the office has received “a handful” of such complaints over the last few years, including one case study posted to the commissioner’s website.

In 2015, an unidentified store stopped posting bulletin board pictures of suspected shoplifters after the commissioner found the practice “not permissible” under the federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, according to the commissioner’s web site.

“The major lesson learned here is that publicly displaying, without consent, photographs of individuals recorded on a business’ video surveillance system for the purposes of identifying alleged shoplifters is not permissible under PIPEDA,” the email read.

Privacy lawyer David Fraser said Friday reasonable, ethical judgement should be used in these cases, especially online where images can spread quickly.

Even if a retailer could argue they disclosed footage for a reasonable purpose, the nature of the acts captured on camera could have unintended negative effects on the person once they spread online.

“If you have a store that exclusively sells adult products that shows someone sneaking away with a sex toy, I can certainly see that there is a potential element of stigmatization and shaming,” Fraser said from Halifax.

Fraser said taking footage to law enforcement is probably legally safer than posting it online, so Crime Stoppers or police can consider whether sharing the image would actually advance an investigation.

“I’m not sure necessarily that a mad merchant, an upset merchant is best placed to make that judgement call because they may have more emotional investment in it than police would,” he said. “Best to leave it to the police to make that call.”

RELATED: Privacy lawyer warns against victim blaming in recent sextortion scams

But Fraser pointed out police can also get caught up in the grey area.

A woman recently sued the Ottawa Police Services Board and Ottawa Capital Area Crime Stoppers for defamation and negligence over shared mall security footage alleging she “stole” a purse when she had actually walked off-camera and taken it to a lost and found.

This included a video posted online showing the woman’s face with the caption “Ottawa: Purse Snatching in Downtown Mall.”

The woman told Crime Stoppers she was seeking compensation after the “traumatic experience” tarnished her reputation and resulted in a suspension at her workplace.

Fraser said it’s also important to consider the unseen possible motives for a theft, like someone with little income unable to afford food or someone struggling to overcome an addiction, before posting footage online that could follow a person into their future.

“Even if we don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for the person at the time, we need to remember the essential humanity of people,” Fraser said.

“While there is a societal interest in finding people who commit crimes, that person is still a person, and should that theft be on the internet five years from now or 10 years from now?”

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ahead of the provincial election on Oct. 24, Enderby residents put their questions to the Shuswap riding’s three candidates: Greg Kyllo for the BC Liberal Party, Sylvia Lindgren for the BC NDP and Owen Madden for the BC Green Party. The candidates recorded their answers in videos distributed by the Enderby and District Chamber of Commerce. (Salmon Arm Observer image)
B.C. VOTES 2020: Shuswap candidates answer Enderby’s top election questions

The candidates submitted video responses for an all-candidates forum ahead of the Oct. 24 election

Shuswap BC NDP candidate Sylvia Lindgren reports several campaign signs have recently been damaged or removed. (Jim Elliot-Salmon Arm Observer)
Shuswap BC NDP candidate says campaign signs stolen and damaged

Sylvia Lindgren says with pandemic, signs are more important to candidates this election

Curtis Sagmoen
Public warning issued to North Okanagan sex trade workers

RCMP warns workers to stay away from Salmon River Road area

From left, city workers Hugh Bennett, Chris Carr and Teneal Crossman secure the fountain they’ve just removed from McGuire Lake on Oct. 21, 2020 before the ice moves in. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)
Salmon Arm fountain disappears along with summer

No more fountain in McGuire Lake as winter preparations begin

Two pigs roam the Salmon Arm Walmart parking lot during a prior visit photographed by Danielle Burgi. (Danielle Burgi photo)
Pigs trot over for a visit at Salmon Arm shopping centre

Employees say this was the second drop-in from the temporarily free-range porkers

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry presents modelling of COVID-19 spread in B.C., March 25, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. sets another COVID-19 record with 203 new cases

up to 1,766 active cases in B.C., two more deaths

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

(Kelowna Capital News)
B.C. Labour Board orders Peachland cannabis company to reinstate laid-off employees

The B.C. Labour Relations Board determined the employees were laid off due to their plan to unionize

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
British Columbia man dies during ski trip near glacier west of Calgary

Kananaskis Public Safety and Alpine Helicopters responded around 2:30 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, following a week-long break for the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
One crisis after another for Trudeau since last federal election one year ago

It has been a year of unprecedented calamity and crisis

Penticton law courts. (Black Press file)
Osoyoos man in court for alleged shooting

The Oct. 11 shooting left a man with non-life threatening injuries

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Princeton man on motor scooter refuses to provide breath test to police

The scooter did not have a license plate and was not insured

The Vernon-North Okanagan RCMP located a hidden compartment in a vehicle, leading to a significant drug seizure, police said in a media release Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. (RCMP photo)
Vernon RCMP find illicit drugs in hidden vehicle compartment

Police seized 4 kg of methamphetamine from a Jeep involved in a violent hit and run March 24

Most Read