Excerpt from privacy commissioner George Radwanski's annual report to Parliament last week.
The fundamental human right of privacy in Canada is under assault as never before. Unless the Government of Canada is quickly dissuaded from its present course, we are on a path that may well lead to the permanent loss of privacy rights that we take for granted (and) important elements of freedom.We face this risk because of the implications of a series of initiatives that the Government has mounted or is actively moving toward. These initiatives are set against the backdrop of September 11, and anti-terrorism is their purported rationale. But the aspects that present the greatest threat to privacy either have nothing at all to do with anti-terrorism, or present no credible promise of effectively enhancing security.
The Government is, quite simply, using September 11 as an excuse for new collections and uses of personal information that have no place in a free and democratic society.
And still the Government is turning a resolutely deaf ear. Specifically, I am referring to the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency's new "Big Brother" passenger database; dramatically enhanced state powers to monitor our communications; a national ID card with biometric identifier; and the Government's support of precedent-setting video surveillance of public streets by the RCMP.
Each of these measures establishes a devastatingly dangerous new principle of acceptable privacy invasion.
I am well aware that these scenarios are likely to sound alarmist. Certainly, the society I am describing bears no relation to the Canada we know. But anyone who is inclined to dismiss the risks out of hand should pause first to consider that the privacy-invasive measures being implemented or developed would have been considered unthinkable just a short year ago.
The place to stop unjustified intrusions on a fundamental human right such as privacy is right at the outset, at the very first attempt to enter where the state has no business treading. Otherwise, the terrain will have been conceded, and the battle lost.
The situation is made all the more worrisome by the fact that the Government is doing all this in blatant, open and repeated disregard.
Regrettably, this Government has lost its moral compass. In the months immediately following September 11, I was in fact quite optimistic that, with regard to privacy, the Government was on the whole being balanced and thoughtful in its response. But now the floodgates appear to have burst.
Now "September 11" is invoked as a kind of magic incantation to stifle debate, disparage critical analysis and persuade us that we live in a suddenly new world where the old rules cannot apply. A popular response is: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."
If we allow the state to sweep away the normal walls of privacy that protect the details of our lives, we will consign ourselves psychologically to living in a fishbowl. That sort of life is characteristic of totalitarian countries.
Government officials have repeatedly told me privately that pressure from the United States government is a strong motivating factor.
Let me be blunt: "The United States made us do it" cannot be a sufficient or acceptable justification for the Government.
Canada is a sovereign country. If we apply the premises of war to the challenges of dealing with terrorism, we will be committing to a "war" with no end. Such a "war" will be eerily reminiscent of Orwell's 1984.
The reality is that there are no security measures that can provide complete protection against murderous individuals willing to lose their own lives to make their point. Even the most repressive regimes have not been able to immunize themselves. We also need to keep the risks in perspective: In any scenario, the average Canadian is far more likely to come to harm in a traffic accident than at the hands of terrorists.