“Free thinking” in democracies

 In this column Jim Taylor argues that:

“National security and personal security are closely linked. A nation cannot be secure if it systematically undermines the security of its citizens. Citizens are not just a nation’s means to an end; they are the nation.”


By Jim Taylor – Sunday December 15, 2013

Let’s take a purely hypothetical case. Suppose I hid in the bushes outside a neighbour’s house, hoping to catch a glimpse of her disrobing in her bedroom.
I’d be what’s commonly called a “peeping Tom.” I could be, and probably should be, arrested, convicted, and punished.
Under the law, it makes no difference whether I do my spying from the bushes directly outside her bedroom, or set up a powerful telescope several kilometres away. I don’t even have to be there. I’m just as guilty if I set up a hidden camera to take pictures that I can drool over later.
So why is it apparently legal for the state to do the same kind of surreptitious snooping?
IMG_0922Thanks to defector Edward Snowden, we know now that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been tapping the private communications of not only its own citizens, but those of other countries as well.
And a CBC investigation found documents proving that Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) has actively collaborated with the NSA. During the 2010 G-20 economic summit in Toronto, the two agencies worked together to intercept the communications of visiting diplomats. In about 20 countries where Canada is more welcome than the U.S., CSEC even did NSA’s dirty work — peering into the lives of individuals and corporations.

Voyeurism is considered a psychological disorder — mainly male, although not always — where the victim is usually unaware of being observed.
In the U.S., the laws against voyeurism (quoting Wikipedia) specifically refer to “surreptitious surveillance without consent, and unlawful recordings… involving places and times when a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy…”
Voyeurism sounds to me like a perfect description of NSA’s activities.
Pierre Trudeau once declared, “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.”
But does the state have any business peeping into the minds of the nation? The NSA/CSEC’s voyeurism does not seek sexual titillation. Does that make it acceptable?
I suggest that a woman’s thoughts have as much right to privacy as her body. Ditto for men. Electronic surveillance is utterly egalitarian; it ignores gender. And every other distinction, too.
The systems that NSA and CSEC use to gather information act like the gigantic trawl nets used by some fishing nations to scoop up everything in the sea, whether it’s valuable or not, for later sorting and discarding. We condemn indiscriminate harvesting that destroys dolphins and tuna while attempting to gather scallops; we should be equally outraged at indiscriminate electronic harvesting.

National security and personal security are closely linked. A nation cannot be secure if it systematically undermines the security of its citizens. Citizens are not just a nation’s means to an end; they are the nation.
Security comes from the unity of a shared vision, a common purpose. It does not come from lurking in the bushes, hoping to catch an indiscretion.
In previous columns, I have argued that in today’s world, there is no such thing as privacy anymore. (Especially if you’re the mayor of Toronto.) Surveillance cameras monitor your car in traffic. Closed circuit video records your passage in shopping malls and corporate offices. Airport security scanners examine you inside and out. Cell phones capture your actions when you least expect it.
But how much of yourself you choose to expose is still a matter of choice. You don’t have to strip naked in front of a shopping mall cameras. You don’t have to bare your political ideology before you go into a bank.
CSEC and NSA strip away that element of choice.
It’s like a priest broadcasting your words from the confessional. Or a lawyer entering your privileged discussions as evidence against you.

But this is not just about privacy. It’s about intrusion. What the spy agencies are doing is akin to a home invasion. It might even be considered intellectual rape. It’s about busting into “places and times when a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
It seems to me that the NSA and CSEC may still believe in the divine right of kings. Once upon a time it was taken for granted that monarchs had absolute authority over their subjects. They could make laws, or break them. They could raise taxes, launch wars, seize property, and execute opponents, at their sole discretion.
When a woman married, the king or lord often had first rights to bed her.
Few would endorse such practices today. But the state still presumes it has a divine right to insert itself into its subjects’ private lives.
As I write this, I hear that the Harper government in Ottawa has embedded new rules about snooping into an omnibus bill supposedly intended to protect young people from cyber-bullying. But only four of the bill’s 70 pages deal with that subject. All the rest make it easier for the peeping Toms in government agencies to snoop on private conversations and e-mails.
I object.
Copyright © 2013 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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