Juggling democracy, fairness, and security

Presentation to the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security (SECU)  by CUSJ member Jack Dodds*, and CUSJ President Margaret Rao.

On October 19th, 2016 in downtown Toronto, these two CUSJ representatives spoke to the SECU about their concerns that the democratic rights of Canadians are being threatened by over-zealous attention to national security. They pointed out that democratic society is founded on a principle of equity and fairness, which applies to all citizens, including those working for national security and those in government. Democracy can be seen as a spiritual concept, in that it is an expression of faith in the power of human beings to shape their own lives.

UPDATE Nov. 16 2016: The CUSJ brief to the SECU has now been published in full on the committee website, including a French translation. This includes the comments on “going dark,” which are relevant to the current propaganda coming from the RCMP via the Toronto Star and CBC about law enforcement access to telecommunications. Here’s the link.

Notes: 1) For the French version, click on the “Français” button in the upper right corner. 2) Our second brief, on bill C-22 (establishing the parliamentary oversight committee), has not yet been published.

Big Brother is Watching You

surveillanceRao and Dodds urged the SECU to make balanced decisions regarding security legislation that honor the democratic vision of Canada, an ideal that they fear could be compromised if too much weight is given to concerns for security. Security agencies such as the CIA and the NSA have a history of “playing to the edge” of the law, or even acting outside of the law, which can erode democracy. Many former Canadian schoolchildren have read George Orwell’s 1984, and will recall “Big Brother”, the leader of Oceania, a totalitarian, paternalistic state that wields an eerie power over the inhabitants–not the image of a thriving democracy.

CUSJ’s call to government: 1. Acknowledge that there is tension between surveillance activities and the health of our democratic society.

Security could endanger… national security

Dodds and Rao also pointed out that a small possibility of a real security failure should not outweigh the possibility of long-term damage to Canadian democracy. A failure to honour the intangible democratic spirit of our country, in which citizens are subjected to pervasive surveillance or worse, may be dangerous to national security in the long term–a lack of respect by our government, could lead to a lack of respect for government. The CUSJ represented urged the SECU to establish and enforce clear limits on security agency behavior.

CUSJ’s call to government: 2. Set clear limits on security activities to ensure that democratic ideals are honoured.

Searches and secrecy

To reverse the creeping paternalism implicit in expanded powers for security agencies, Rao and Dodds urged Parliament to reaffirm that security agencies can only perform searches with a warrant, and that citizens, no matter what their circumstances, are always presumed innocent under the law. They decried the fact that recent legislation has “added a shopping list of vaguely defined activities that undermine the security of Canada” to justify information sharing. This allows security agencies to build dossiers and intervene in the activities of citizens who are not performing criminal acts. The infamous security certificates cases are a sad reminder of this.

They also reminded the audience that some disturbing actions have been carried out in the name of security, as when when security agencies gave energy companies classified briefings, and when an RCMP report used hostile terms to describe lawful actions, such as the use of social media. This type of activity blurs the lines between peaceful protests, a democratic right, and violent actions that break the law.

Phone surveillance by the state

Rao reminded us that Minister Goodale recently invoked the “going dark” phenomenon, suggesting that security agencies need to monitor phone lines at all times, without a warrant, in order to keep tabs on sneaky criminals. However, according to Rao, mass surveillance measures would not improve security because of the false positives that would inevitably arise from the sheer volume of data produced. Further, the wide-open nature of indiscriminate surveillance would undermine citizens’ trust in government, and in its legitimacy. Lastly, the data, once gathered and exposed, opens a veritable Pandora’s box that could be used by dishonest factions within and outside of government.  She concluded, “In reality, the long term trend is towards increasing availability of data. The real challenge is to prevent its misuse.”

CUSJ’s call to government: 3. Mandate proven transparency mechanisms so that citizens can exert meaningful control over surveillance activities.

Rao concluded by paraphrasing theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: Humankind’s capacy for justice makes democracy possible; but its inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.

Notes from Margaret Rao

We were alotted 3 minutes each as there were approximately 30 speakers. They brought it down to 2 minutes each before the end. Luckily, Jack and I were placed near the start so Jack read aloud the first part and I the last half of the presentation. It was well received by the Chair. He said he appreciated the Niebuhr quote at the end. Jack was there for the afternoon expert presentations as well. People spoke passionately to the need of much needed amendments, and many at the public consultation spoke of the need to repeal  Bill C-51 entirely. There were journalists, activists and individual citizens, a few of whom stated they were under constant surveillance by security forces. We were the only organization representing a religious organization. I can’t thank Jack enough for the well thought out oral and written submission.

For more information, please check out the SECU website, and consider making your own submission. We need to impress upon our current government the need to honour the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms!

*Editor’s Note: Jack Dodds was instrumental in getting the Federal Government to pass a 2013 CUC resolution on pervasive surveillance.

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