It's time to ask: Is privacy dead?

Privacy is under pressure. As the United States pursues its Homeland Security project, and the Canadian government finds new ways to retain new information about anyone who travels, where exactly are we heading? Defending privacy in the abstract is easy. Defending it when people are under threat, when it needs defending most, is more difficult. It may be inconvenient to remember that privacy is an essential component of individual freedom, which in turn underpins democracy and the free society we too often take for granted. It may even seem obstructionist, when authorities are assembling ever-greater powers to deal with a crisis, to insist that we not surrender more of our privacy than is necessary for our protection.

But it is important to do so. Once the machinery of intrusion is in place, it may be hard to dismantle. In the United States, President George W. Bush last Monday signed into law a bill to create the massive Department of Homeland Security, which will house the Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization, the Secret Service, the Coast Guard and 18 other government agencies. The aim is to share information in the pursuit of terrorists.

At the same time, the Pentagon is working on its Total Information Awareness Program, a database that will house information indiscriminately gleaned from passports, work permits, airline tickets, car rentals and the like. The guiding theory is that if the system knows all it can about as many people as it can, whoever those people may be, it can detect subversive patterns. The records will also be available to the Homeland Security Department's Directorate for Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection.

When asked to justify the considerable crimp in civil liberties from this random information-gathering and retention, the authorities offer much the same response: Would you rather have a police officer watching you or a terrorist? Assistant U.S. attorney-general Viet Dinh delivered an Orwellian variation: "It is not a balance between security and liberty. It is a liberty rooted in security."

The government and the bureaucracy excuse their overzealous collection on the assumption that any use they make of the information will be benign. This is, as Oscar Wilde said of second marriages, the triumph of hope over experience. Consider the grudges pursued by former Federal Bureau of Investigation head J. Edgar Hoover, whose files brimmed with material the FBI had no business collecting, except to give him leverage over those who might mess with him.

And who will head the Total Information Awareness Program? John Poindexter, who, in his previous incarnation as national security adviser to then-president Ronald Reagan, failed to tell Congress about covert American support of the contras seeking to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. His explanation: "I simply did not want any outside interference."

Canadians are no less vulnerable to excessive monitoring of their lives. The Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, under Revenue Minister Elinor Caplan, is assembling a database on everyone entering Canada, including Canadians returning from abroad. The initial purpose of this Advanced Passenger Information/Personal Name Record Initiative, authorized by an amendment last fall to the Customs Act, was to detect patterns suggestive of smuggling: paying in cash at the last minute, no checked baggage. All unrelated data were to be purged from the system within 24 hours.

And now? The agency intends to retain the data for six years: name, sex, birth date, who booked your trip, all your credit-card records, anything an airline reservation system might know about you. The information will be shared with other departments and institutions, and is expected to extend to cruise ships, buses, trains and ferries. Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian protested to Ms. Caplan in a letter dated Nov. 20: "While I agree that certain privacy-invasive measures may be necessary for anti-terrorism purposes, using the guise of antiterrorism to develop a database which can track and profile all ordinary individuals entering Canada by any means, and retaining this data for six years, is an affront to the rights and liberties that Canadians hold dear."

Welcome to the new Canada. The RCMP has mounted videocameras on the streets of Kelowna, B.C., to keep tabs on anyone who walks by, in the name of fighting crime. A federal consultation paper proposes intercepting records of communications on the Internet -- Web sites visited, e-mails sent, material downloaded -- through a "preservation order" that permits their capturing after the fact. Canadian Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski wrote a concerned letter about that one last week: "Agents of the state in Canada cannot order Canada Post to photocopy the address on every envelope we send, nor can they order bookstores to keep a record of every book we buy, let alone of every page of every magazine we leaf through. There is no reason why they should be able to exercise such powers with regard to every e-mail someone sends or every Web site he visits."

Again, the issue is not the merits of fighting terrorism, but the tendency of authorities to intrude in our private lives beyond justifiable limits. Yes, we're in a war of sorts; but that raises an even more disturbing prospect. Unlike traditional wars, during which civil liberties are routinely suspended in anticipation of their reinstatement when the war is over, the war against terrorism is open-ended. We know when we've failed, but, having no fixed enemy, can't know for sure when we've won. To give up freedoms now is potentially to lose them. There will always be the excuse that the time is not yet right to relax our guard.

One more example. Bill C-17, the latest, softened version of what will become the Public Safety Act, would authorize the RCMP and CSIS to collect passenger information from all domestic and international flights, and to keep it for at least seven days. Again, it is reasonable to use such files to detect the movement of suspected terrorists; but the bill would let the RCMP go fishing for anyone suspected of criminal offences that have nothing to do with terrorism or air safety. If the planes, why not the buses and trains, or private cars, or pedestrians? Immigration Minister Denis Coderre was way ahead of us; last month, he suggested issuing national identity cards. And heaven help you if your name is the same as that of someone wanted for an offence.

Is privacy dead? It risks being trampled, if the public isn't alert enough, or concerned enough, to tell its leaders when they have gone too far. (The Globe and Mail)