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If You Have Nothing to Hide, Why Wear Pants?

If our youngest citizens grow up not understanding their rights and freedoms, we may all find, likely too late, that we have lost something very valuable: our privacy.
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Does your child accuse you of being snoopy? You may be looking through his or her "stuff" in order to keep your child safe (or to get rid of those mouldy old cookies at the bottom of the backpack), but your child may still want privacy.

While section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not apply to interactions between parents and children, the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure remains a right that needs to be respected and protected. It is also the most difficult one for many people to understand. Here are a few reasons why:

The first problem comes from our general sense of being good, honest citizens. Most of us go about our business, respect authority, and usually stay out of trouble. Our expectation is that, since we are not doing anything wrong, we should have nothing to worry about. We will not attract unwelcome attention -- but if we do, we have nothing to hide.

If we choose to go to a rock concert, or to travel by air, we expect to open our bags and have our belongings searched. Why worry when we don't have anything we should not have? If we did have something to hide, we would leave it at home, or simply not go to the concert or go on the plane. No problem, right?

The issue becomes clearer, however, when we ask the truly relevant questions. These are: who wants to know what is in my bag? Why do they want this information? And what do they plan to do with the information that is revealed by the search? The question is not, "Why worry when you have nothing to hide?" because we all have a sense that our dignity is impeded when we do not get to choose with whom we share our intimate lives.

I recently asked a group of middle school children if they thought it would be OK if their principal looked through their backpacks. Most had no problem with it. But a group of girls were horrified. What if the principal, a man, saw their feminine hygiene products! While there is nothing wrong with their having these items, they felt violated by the very thought of showing them to anyone.

In another attempt to explain why Canada has a constitutional protection of privacy, I asked a group of teachers if anyone would like to show the gathering the family photos they had in their wallets or on their phones. Many were eager to share the latest pictures of children, grandchildren, partners, and pets. Then I asked them if they would feel the same if their principal, or a police officer were to demand that they turn over the same photographs. The sharing stopped. Even though there was no offence in having such pictures, the notion that they would not be the ones to decide to whom this intimate information would be revealed was very disturbing.

Along with TVO, the Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust is working to get even our youngest citizens engaged in asking the relevant questions that we all should ask when our privacy is threatened. With stories and CCLET's That's Not Fair!videos, we invite all families, snoopy or otherwise, to engage their youngsters in considering when and where it is reasonable to give up their section 8 rights -- their right to privacy.

So what is a "reasonable" search? Here is where we often get confused. Many people think a reasonable search is one where something dangerous or illegal has been found. But a search has to be "reasonable" BEFORE it is performed. If police were to search every home in every city, there is little doubt that they would turn up all sorts of dangerous and illegal items. But we know that such a fishing expedition would be unconstitutional -- and outrageous.

Yet, we have seen numbers of recent revelations that our government agencies may be doing just this sort of thing. From our financial regulators to our "spy" agencies, we have some serious questions to ask.

If our youngest citizens grow up not understanding their rights and freedoms, we may all find, likely too late, that we have lost something very valuable: our privacy.