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ARCHIVED - Hamas is OK, it's you we're not sure of

November 15, 2002

Column by Andrew Coyne

© 2002 National Post
Reprinted with permission

As Canadians absorb the implications of being named on the list of countries marked for death by Osama bin Laden (or whoever), it's good to know those responsible for our safety have access to a decent copy of Fodor's Canada. That would seem to have been the source for that top-secret, eyes-only list intelligence analysts in the U.S. State Department have compiled of the 22 most likely targets of terrorist attacks in Canada. The Parliament Buildings? Those cunning bastards. The Calgary Stampede? The Confederation Bridge? And the CN Tower! Who knew?

Nonetheless, forewarned is forearmed, and the question now becomes how to respond to the threat. Plainly some sort of universal database is required, taking the names of everyone who enters or exits any of these sites over a number of years and cross-referencing it against a list of known tourists. To be extra safe, let's expand the list of sites requiring identification to, oh, several thousand at least: After all, terrorists could strike anywhere. Hmm. Anywhere? Right: What we need are sidewalk checkpoints, video surveillance units, random pedestrian searches. Oh, and what about a mandatory national identity card?

If any of this seems like overkill, you might want to have a word with the folks in the federal government. The same people who can't seem to wrap their minds around banning Hamas or Hezbollah are awfully eager to know as much as they can about you. The same government that is outraged that the United States should be targeting citizens of certain countries for intrusive security measures when they cross the border is in effect doing the same thing - to its own citizens. You don't like racial profiling? Try national profiling. Under federal legislation, passed and pending, every traveller to, from or within Canada would have his movements monitored, tracked and recorded by the state, for uses far beyond fighting terrorism.

Already in the works, for example, is a massive new surveillance database officials at the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency will maintain on passengers to Canada. Officially called the Advance Passenger Information /Passenger Name Record, it has been aptly dubbed the "Big Brother" database by the federal Privacy Commissioner, the indefatigable George Radwanski. Smuggled into law during the last session as Bill S-23 (never heard of it? No wonder: It passed in less than a month), the database will contain detailed personal information on every air traveller arriving in Canada, foreigners and citizens alike.

As described by Mr. Radwanski, it will include "every destination you travel to, who you travel with, how you pay for your ticket, how long you stay, how many pieces of baggage you check each time, even your dietary preferences." The information the airlines provide will be kept on hand for six years, and can be used for "virtually anything the government deems appropriate - routine income tax audit or investigation purposes, data matches with other departments, criminal investigation 'fishing expeditions.'" Internal government documents reveal plans to expand its use to bus and rail travel as well.

That's not all. Bill C-17, now before Parliament - the latest version of the Public Safety Act, first introduced in the previous session - would give police and intelligence officers similar access to information on all Canadian airline passengers, including those travelling within Canada. Ordinarily, you have to have done something wrong, or be reasonably suspected of it, before the police can gather such information about you. If this bill passes, they will have it as of right, the same as if officers could stroll up and down the aisles, demanding to see your "papers."

And while that might be excusable in the case of terrorism, the bill would permit the police to screen airline passenger lists, not only for terrorists, but for anyone wanted for any crime punishable by five years in jail or more. That is, it is using the public's fear of terrorism, and their willingness to make reasonable concessions of personal privacy in the face of an unprecedented security threat, to justify measures that have nothing to do with terrorism, and would never previously have been considered reasonable.

But I haven't finished. The latest addition to the government's roster of intrusive and unnecessary violations of privacy rights is a mandatory identification card, to be carried by all Canadian citizens. The brainchild of Denis Coderre, the Immigration Minister (last seen proposing the creation of immigrant Bantustans in remote regions of the country, where immigrants would agree to remain for three to five years), the cards would include your photo, and probably some sort of biometric information like your fingerprint.

Is that all? What else would it contain? A computer chip, perhaps, with information on your health, your tax records, your driver's license, any criminal convictions - the dream of bureaucrats everywhere? Otherwise it's hard to see what the point is. The minister says it could be used for travelling to the United States, but that's what we have passports for. What other purposes would it have? Who would have access to it? What limits would be put on its use? And as ever, what has this got to do with fighting terrorism?