Ottawa using Sept. 11 to strip Canadians of privacy rights: federal watchdog
Date: Thursday, January 30 2003
Topic: Canadian Politics
OTTAWA (CP) - Imagine a Canada in which every citizen is finger-printed and retina-scanned.
Imagine massive government databases that use these biometric identifiers to catalogue people's travel habits at home and abroad, their Internet usage, their e-mail and cell phone conversations and even videotapes them as they converse on a street corner. Such a nightmare scenario was tabled Wednesday in the staid House of Commons by the federal ombudsman appointed to safeguard Canadian privacy. And George Radwanksi says this Orwellian society could be the natural evolution of the Liberal government's "unprecedented assault" on privacy rights.
"A year and half ago, if anyone had described the measures now being introduced, no one would have thought it would happen," the federal privacy commissioner told a news conference after he submitted his report.
"It's easy in a country like Canada to say bad things don't happen, nobody would intrude on our rights .Â .Â . (but) all we have to do is look back at history."
Whether it be the internment of Japanese Canadians in the 1940s or the RCMP opening mail and torching barns in Quebec in the 1970s, "we're not immune from excesses by the state," said Radwanski.
Today, the terrorist attacks of September 2001 appear to have given Ottawa carte blanche to trample privacy rights that Canadians long have taken for granted, he argues.
He listed five specific complaints Wednesday:
- A personal travel database on all citizens by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency that will be shared with any other government department that asks.
- Proposed state powers to monitor electronic communications.
- A proposed national identification card with biometric identifiers.
- Checking all air travellers for outstanding warrants under section 4.82 of the new anti-terror legislation, Bill C-17.
- Federal support for video surveillance on public streets by the RCMP.
Radwanski said each of these measures individually is deeply disturbing.
"Together, they add up to an unprecedented assault on the fundamental human right of privacy by the government of Canada," he said.
And they're all being undertaken in "blatant, open and repeated disregard" of Radwanski's warnings to the contrary.
Indeed, the government didn't appear to take Radwanski's latest admonitions any more seriously than his many previous warnings.
"We all know the commissioner," said Immigration Minister Denis Coderre, who is floating the plan for national identity cards.
"He's got the right to say what he says, he's got the right to think what he thinks. I believe we need the debate."
Transport Minister David Collenette was similarly dismissive.
"He has a view, which is natural - he's the privacy commissioner," said Collenette, who is responsible for collecting air traveller information.
"We happen to believe that the current bill strikes a balance.Â .Â ."
Even John Reynolds, the Canadian Alliance House leader, said Radwanski was barking up the wrong tree.
"The information is necessary. We are at war (on terrorism) and we have to protect ourselves."
Reynolds also suggested that law-abiding citizens with nothing to hide shouldn't be overly concerned, a commonly voiced opinion.
Such arguments clearly frustrate Radwanski.
He is careful to note that his complaints about anti-terror measures relate primarily to function creep, when information collected to stop terrorists is subsequently used for a host of other purposes.
The greatest threats to privacy, he wrote in his report, "either have nothing at all to do with anti-terrorism, or they present no credible promise of effectively enhancing security."
He's equally adamant that the why-should-I-worry? mentality of law-abiding citizens is an argument "at the intellectual level of a bumper sticker."
The same reasoning suggests police should be free to wander through everyone's homes, read their mail or listen in on their phone calls at any time.
"We all have something to hide in terms of our interests, our relationships, our attitudes, choices we've made, mistakes we've made, financial circumstances, our personal habits," said Radwanski.
"Not because they're illegal. Not because they're shameful. (But) simply because they are private."
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