Friday, August 19, 2005

Police state follies

9/11 and more recent events have provided police ever more opportunities to put into effect what they've always wanted: arbitrary powers of detention (C-36 gave them that), new and wonderful crowd-control weapons, and now a considerably enhanced snoop capability. Times are hard, these days, for the civil libertarian crowd.

Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, a former civil rights advocate, is proposing sweeping powers to monitor cellphone conversations and Internet traffic. The measures would force Internet service providers to hand over detailed information on demand, regarding the surfing habits of individuals and their on-line pseudonyms. Personal emails, text messages, even secure websites used for financial transactions would be open to police scrutiny. Not to worry, says Cotler: this is just a technological update to put police "on the same level playing field as criminals and terrorists."

Similar soothing words come from Alex Swan, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan, the Minister whose original C-36 draft would have defined an illegal strike as a terrorist act. Judicial oversight, he says, will prevent police from abusing the new measures to go after people for minor offences like illegal music downloads, and the cost involved will serve as a further check.

But Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, for one, is unimpressed. Ominously, she notes that the proposed law would give police access to GPS data from cellphones and detailed electronic banking information that "could allow the government to track an individual's every move." And Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, says, bluntly, that the new law goes "well, well beyond" technological updating, warning that "it fundamentally reshapes the Internet in Canada, creating significant new surveillance powers." Indeed, the measures would allow police to do this without court authority of any kind.

One report suggests that the NDP is supportive. "Generally, members of the committee from all parties are concerned about the limitations police are operating under," justice critic Joe Comartin is quoted as saying. "Our police forces always seem to be lagging behind." Comartin made his comments in the context of child pornography, and he has actually supported a tighter rein on Canada's security services, but perhaps his disgust with child porn has blinded him to the dangers of the new proposals.

Once again, we are given an object lesson in ends, means, and justification.

Many--perhaps most--Canadians will yawn, ask Geist and Stoddart what their problem is, and don't they know that police need the wherewithal to fight terrorism and child pornography? But never mind the ostensible reasons and the ostensible targets. The state is building a tool here that can be used--easily used--for ill as well as for good, by anyone's definition. We have to look at the apparatus, sometimes, and not what it makes. If someone constructs a nuclear can-opener, it's reasonable to ask what else it might be used for.

I am not reassured about the cost argument: most of those expenses will be borne by ISPs who will be forced to keep detailed and intrusive records to which the police will have ready access. But, more important, what is outlined is an all-encompassing snoop capacity that, frankly stated, must be every police agency's wet dream. Remember that the state once determined Communism, then separatism, and now the even more ill-defined terrorism as the enemy, and unleashed its enforcement arm, the police, to take care of things. What was the result?

I lived through the Cold War, when blundering Mounties investigated a 15-year-old kid in Winnipeg for joking that Santa Claus was a Communist. Then there were the days of dirty tricks, with fake mail and barn-burning, followed by Sergeant Hugh Stewart gleefully hosing down non-violent demonstrators and reporters with pepper-spray, and then the rash and brutal RCMP actions at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. The Mounties have never been accountable to the public: the Chair of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, Ms. Shirley Heafey, has encountered a continuing lack of cooperation from the RCMP in her efforts to probe complaints.

So let me simply pose the question in the bluntest of terms. Do Canadians really want these unsophisticated, unaccountable, often impulsive cops pawing through their email and listening in on their cell-phone calls and checking into their finances at will--in the name of security? Over to you.

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