By Diane Walsh
We live with being watched in ever more penetrating ways
In recent months there has been criticism of the Harper government’s current “security” modus operandi, with accusations that the federal Conservatives are complicit in a booming US spy-wagon.
Much of the outcry is coming from traditionally left-of-centre online watchdog bulletins that, not surprisingly, hone in on risks to our privacy rights in Canada. There are websites that track others online activity which some have deemed an infringement of basic privacy rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In a January 18th, 2008 statement, the Green Party raised awareness in Canada about US surveillance practices. “The FBI's international database raises privacy concerns” according to Green Party Press Secretary Camille Labchuk. There is a “concern over the potential loss of privacy [for Canadians] with the United States’ proposed international database dubbed the ‘Server in the Sky,’” she goes on. “The project, which would allow the international exchange of biometric information, could result in a significant loss of personal privacy for Canadian citizens and should be subject to Parliamentary approval. FBI has been speaking with the RCMP regarding the establishment of an international database that would allow personal information such as fingerprints, DNA and eye scans to be easily exchanged between the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. It is estimated that the database would hold personal information from millions of people.”
The questions being asked are two-fold: Do we need to be afraid of what we write and send over the internet if it’s not in agreement with current US security policy? And does the ordinary person publishing dissenting opinion over the web need to be worried that some phrase may trigger a surveillance op?
Daringly, I suppose, I’ve explored citizen rights watchdog websites noticing a kind of cynicism out there about “security” issues in general; for the most part people are wondering if one day mandatory eye scans will be the future to which we have to look forward if we continue along this US spy wagon trail. Are we living in Orwell’s version of 1984 after all?
Civil liberties this side of the border could well be under threat as a direct result of the US administration’s green-light to the database operating in the Canadian cyber skies. To this extent there may even be a risk in being seen to be defending individual rights over national security for this simple reason: there’s always a chance some “spy expert” could negatively construe participation in a discussion as lack of patriotism or leftist radicalism requiring surveillance by security personnel whose job it is to comb suspicious dissent in an age of terrorism.
Don’t you get the feeling sometimes when you see spam in your inbox that it smacks as a kind of Orwellianism? Is it just idle cyber-speculation that we are being watched? Citizen watchdog sites seem not to think so. Perhaps you might have noticed made-up names or spam words which are designed to grab your attention and are disturbingly similar to the very words you just typed to a friend in a recent email.
The internet is becoming a little spooky and I don’t think I’m alone in being a touch paranoid. In these times of increased state power we’re being patronized and silenced. We’re told reassuringly that surveillance, whatever the form, is good because it keeps us safe, because, “our government’s making things more secure.” Apart from being advised to buy more “protection” software we’re told to mind our own business and let security experts do what they do best.
But when we’re continually inundated by more invasions in our “secure” email account this is not the rhetoric we want to hear. It’s no surprise there are more than just a few people more than a little frustrated when the fact is infiltration of some form or other is happening all around us. It’s a part of a computer-dependent society, we’re told, and this is not to be questioned “in an age of national security priorities.”
Journalists in particular have a burden of responsibility to be acutely aware of the changing ethical landscape when it comes to protecting privacy. But again and again we are seeing them punished for protecting “sources.” What we’ve long understood to be Charter-protected “privacy rights” is eroding. It’s clear: traditionally in Canada it used to be accepted that if someone was to be videotaped she or he couldn’t also be audio-taped at the same time (that is, video-recorded and heard, talking without her or his explicit permission). This is not so anymore. Look at the proliferation of government-legitimated “quiet” investigations and the number of U-Tube videos freely circulated.
Having recently spoken to a private investigator off-the-record I’m now led to ask the question: what part, if any, do private investigators working for government play in the new wave of “doing safety” for the state? What was once an undisputedly careful professional practice of making sure not to breach the video-audio rule is muddying up significantly.
It doesn’t help that there is clandestine surveillance going on though the computer. Think of the quickly-proliferating internet software inventions that represent insidious “recording” opportunities. Some people have complained these invasive tools are described innocently as benign software advancements when in fact they can be used to wrongfully invade ordinary people’s lives under the guise of government, police and associates allegedly doing “their job to protect us.”
Many bloggers concur it’s a good thing we’re gradually gaining greater access to historically-held government information. Freedom of Information legislation has radically changed the face of transparency. Paradoxically, this transparency is touted as a good thing. The governments in unison are claiming they need more protection in order to better protect citizens. But it may be that we need protection from them.
Canada still ranked high in terms of a country that protects privacy but Harper’s complicity with the US administration’s push for the Server in the Sky, necessarily reaching Canada, changes the privacy rights landscape. There needs to be a discussion in Parliament about the “Server in the Sky” and its relationship with our Charter.
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Are we supposed to be pretending that we don't know what an impending purge looks like? Granted I've never been in one but thanks to the printed word I know what one looks like.