Ah, the 70s. Bell-bottoms. Polyester. Afros. The 1972 Watergate scandal opened the world's eyes to the art of government wiretapping. It seemed there were no limits to misuse of technology to facilitate invasion of privacy. As the realization that a government could spy on its own citizens brought down an American president, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau moved to formally outlaw wiretapping on this day in 1973.
Trudeau's Protection of Privacy Act made it illegal for people to use wiretaps and other forms of electronic devices without a person's consent. It provided fines and jail time for anyone disclosing illegally-retrieved information. The legislation allowed exceptions for law enforcement, presumably to catch criminals.
The law has since evolved, but its spirit still resonates with Canadians.
That explains the widespread wince last winter, following Vic Toews' tabling of an "online snooping bill" which would have allowed police to gather telecommunications service provider (TSP) subscriber data of cell phone and Internet users without warrants. In order words, the bill would put an electronic prisoner's bracelet on every Canadian.
In fact, Ontario Privacy Commissioner Anne Cavoukian said the bill was "one of the most invasive threats to our privacy and freedom that [she had] ever encountered." Toews retracted the invasive bill after he himself had his privacy plastered all over Twitter. The bill died quietly, but the noise would not die down.
Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community were left disturbed and frightened when a GLBT-themed message from the minister's office landed in their email inbox in September. Trudeau famously said "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation," but Jason Kenney peered into their privacy to find out their sexual preference nonetheless. Seemingly, the long arm of Harper's Conservative government has no limits: even one's sexual orientation is up for grabs.
Curiously, this targeted communications tactic had been used in 2007 when Jewish voters were singled out and sent a Rosh Hashanah greeting card from Harper's office.
"I didn't live through the Second World War, but I've read enough and heard enough to know that the thought of a list of Jewish people makes people cringe," said one recipient at the time.
Incorrigible and unrepentant, the unsettling method is apparently still in use.
Lest we forget, the Conservatives didn't bother to get any warrants or permissions before snooping in personal employee records of former Canadian Forces members, going so far as to wield privacy violation as a weapons against our veterans. This practice went on for years, but the internal investigation was quashed by the Veterans Affairs Minister in 2010. Apparently transparency is a one-way street with the Harper government.
A lot has changed since the 70s, but the notion that government should cede to citizens' privacy remains a consistent Canadian value. The Harper government's Orwellian strategies constitute an affront on the Canadian way of life and the freedoms we all cherish. If the Conservatives' commitment to smaller government is sincere, perhaps they should start by downsizing their electronic eavesdropping on innocent law-abiding Canadians, for starters.