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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2003

Radwanski Warns Right to Privacy Endangered

Federal privacy commissioner George Radwanski is warning the right to privacy in Canada is under assault as never before.

In his annual report to Parliament released last month, Radwanski said, “Unless the Government of Canada is quickly dissuaded from its present course by Parliamentary action and public insistence, we are on a path that may well lead to the permanent loss not only of privacy rights that we take for granted but also of important elements of freedom as we now know it.”

He cited a variety of federal initiatives taken in the post-Sept. 11 environment, in the name of anti-terrorism. “But the aspects that present the greatest threats to privacy have either nothing at all to do with anti-terrorism, or they present no credible promise of effectively enhancing security,” Radwanski said.

In his report, he underscored his concerns about the extension of anti-terrorism measures to “additional purposes completely unrelated to anti-terrorism,” or to intrusions on privacy whose relevance to anti-terrorism has not been demonstrated.

He denounced the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency’s “Big Brother” passenger database, provisions in Bill C-17 (currently before the House of Commons) which give the state enhanced powers to monitor communications, Immigration Minister Denis Coderre’s proposed national ID card with biometric identifiers, and government support for video surveillance of public streets by the RCMP.

“These are not abstract or theoretical concerns,” Radwanski wrote. If these measures go ahead, he warned “all our travel outside Canada will be systematically recorded, tracked and analyzed for signs of anything that the government might find suspicious or undesirable.” These dossiers of information will be available to every federal department and agency to use as they wish.

The national ID cards “will open the way to being stopped in the streets by police and required to identify ourselves on demand.”

Radwanski lamented that, in the aftermath of Sept.11, the federal government “has lost its moral compass with regard to the fundamental human right of privacy.”

“Now ‘September11’ 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.”

He cautioned against the popular response: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

“The truth is that we all do have something to hide, not because it’s criminal or even shameful, but simply because it’s private. We carefully calibrate what we reveal about ourselves to others. Most of us are only willing to have a few things known about us by a stranger, more by an acquaintance, and the most by a very close friend or a romantic partner. The right not to be known against our will — indeed, the right to be anonymous except when we choose to identify ourselves — is at the very core of human dignity, autonomy and freedom.”

In pointing out that “the more information government compiles about us, the more of it will be wrong” he cited numerous factual errors people have found in various government databases.

He warned that “if our privacy becomes ever more systematically invaded by the state for purposes of assessing our behaviour and making judgments about us, wrong information and misinterpretations will have potential consequences.” Wrong facts can make it appear we have done things we have not. Misinterpretation of innocent behaviour can cause suspicions and put us in trouble in a society where everyone is viewed as a potential suspect.

“Worse yet, we may never know what negative assumptions or judgments have been made about us in state files,” Radwanski noted. “Under exemptions to the general right of access under the Privacy Act, Canadians do not have the right to see the personal information the government holds about them if it pertains to national security or an ongoing investigation.”

“By the time we clear our names and establish our innocence, we may have suffered irreparable financial or social harm.”