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Ottawa canada big brother { February 1 2003 }

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Ottawa opens the door to an era of Big Brother
Expanded anti-terrorism measures far too vulnerable to abuse

Vancouver Sun

Saturday, February 01, 2003

All our travels outside the country are recorded, tracked and analyzed. A Big Brother dossier of information is kept on every person and made available to every federal department and agency.

Police and security agencies are able to access any e-mail we send, any cellphone call we make, and any Web site we visit.

We all carry compulsory national ID cards that contain our fingerprints and retina scans, and police use video surveillance cameras to track our every move through the streets.

Oceania in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four ? No, Canada in the 21st century.

That's the nightmare vision George Radwanski, Canada's privacy commissioner, outlined in his annual report to Parliament.

Mr. Radwanski highlighted a number of privacy concerns, largely related to anti-terrorism measures. While the importance of preventing terrorist attacks can't be overestimated, it appears that the government won't commit to ensuring that the measures are used exclusively for that purpose.

The Canada Customs and Revenue Agency is planning to develop a "Big Brother" database that will record more than 30 separate pieces of information on every Canadian who travels abroad, including destinations and dietary preferences.

Revenue Minister Elinor Caplan explicitly refused Mr. Radwanski's request to ensure that the database is used solely to prevent terrorism. As it stands, the information could assist anyone from police to income tax investigators.

Moreover, Ms. Caplan reneged on an undertaking to ensure that all flight travel information is destroyed within 24 hours of its collection. The government now plans to keep the info on file for six years -- longer even than the U.S. keeps such information.

When it comes to the database, the feds seem to have little time for privacy concerns. They were largely indifferent to the fact that three distinguished legal experts concluded that the database is unconstitutional.

The law under which the database would be established -- Bill C-17 (the Public Safety Bill) -- was introduced shortly after Sept. 11, 2002, and has been amended several times. Nevertheless, it's still enormously problematic, particularly because it doesn't necessarily restrict the feds to collecting flight travel information.

The bill can be effectively amended by simply adding new regulations -- a procedure that doesn't attract parliamentary scrutiny the way new legislation does. And through new regulations, the government could enter into arrangements with the private-sector and begin collecting all manner of data, from credit card reports to library borrowing activities.

Another of Mr. Radwanski's concerns strikes close to home. Police use of video surveillance cameras isn't just part of the commissioner's nightmare scenario -- it's happening right now.

For more than a year, Mr. Radwan-ski has tried unsuccessfully to stop the RCMP from filming citizens on a public street in Kelowna. And despite retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Gerard La Forest's opinion that such activity contravenes the Charter, there appears to be no end in sight.

Mr. Radwanski has brought an action against the government to stop the activity, but the feds are trying to prevent it by arguing that he has no standing -- that, as privacy commissioner, he doesn't have the right to initiate the action.

That attitude on the part of the feds is most disturbing of all. While the government usually pays heed to the concerns of the privacy commissioner, Mr. Radwanski said that this year, his concerns were "brushed aside or ignored."

The feds therefore seem to be using anti-terrorism measures much like an omnibus bill: implement an uncontroversial high-profile initiative, and quietly usher in a lot of controversial measures and hope no one notices. Mr. Radwanski has called for a public outcry to stop the intrusions into our privacy before it's too late.

The bottom line, according to Mr Radwanski, is this: "If we have to live our lives weighing every action, every human contact, wondering what agents of the state might find out about it, analyse it, judge it, possibly misconstrue it, and somehow use it to our detriment, we are not truly free."

Indeed. And we are not truly living, either.

Copyright 2003 Vancouver Sun

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