Let Canadians debate new surveillance bill
Thursday, September 08, 2005
Should police and intelligence agencies be able to track people through their cellphones, computers or wireless personal digital assistants, unknown to the owners? Many Canadians would have reservations about that, and yet the federal government proposes to give itself exactly that power in its electronic-surveillance bill.
Given that your gadgets would remain accessible to such surveillance even when you've shut them off, Canadians could be tracked around the clock, with no idea that the state was watching them.
The so-called "lawful access" bill is the responsibility of Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan, but Justice Minister Irwin Cotler has been speaking up for it. He keeps saying that protecting civil liberties is "a foremost consideration and concern" for him, but he is not demonstrating that.
He talks about upholding the rule of law, but that begs the question. The enhanced access to our private lives that the government is seeking would indeed be lawful if the bill passed, at least until the courts pronounced on it. But there's plenty of distance between "lawful" and "wise."
Canadians should be shown the full text of the bill now, so a genuine informed debate can be held. To date, the public has had only vague, second-hand scraps of information. Selected insiders have been told more, and some of them--including the Canadian Bar Association--seem to be balking at some of what they've heard.
This method is not surprising behaviour from a government in love with focus-group and poll results. But the interface between national security and civil rights is too important for coy little tricks. Why doesn't McLellan just publish the proposed text of the bill, in its entirety?
On national security there are, to be sure, those who say that the innocent have nothing to fear from a little surveillance; that surely the law will at least make snoopers find a judge to give them a warrant for their capers; and that our government can be relied upon to do the right thing.
We would like to introduce such trusting souls to Ahmad El Maati, the Toronto trucker who was grilled for hours at U.S. Customs in August 2001 because he had a "terrorist map" of Ottawa. The map was, he says, not his, and in any case proved to be simply a redrawn tourist map, containing only public information.
Later that year, while he was in Syria to get married, he was picked up by Syrian authorities and held there and in Egypt for more than 26 months. His interrogators knew his Toronto address and the make and colour of his car. He says this information could only have come from Canadian officials.
His case is akin to that of Maher Arar, whose arrest in the United States and torture in Syria are alleged also to be in part the result of Canadian security agents' denunciations. Both cases suggest Canadians have good reason to be wary about how police and intelligence agencies use their powers.
Security is serious business. There may, unhappily, be real justification for the measures for which McLellan and Cotler seem to be trying to soften us up. But Canadians are grown-up enough to debate the issues. Let's see the whole draft bill and talk about it together.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2005
The Gazette (Montreal)