Privacy could become another victim

The images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center, of people desperately plunging to their deaths and of the buildings – marvels of human ingenuity – tumbling to the ground as if they were made of paper, are ones I’ll never forget.

There’s no doubt that we need to take steps to prevent such tragedies from happening again. But I’m afraid that in our need to once again feel a sense of security, we will create another casualty – privacy.

I’m concerned that people frightened by the unknown, people who never thought anything like this could happen to them, people who are suddenly looking at their neighbour askance will willingly stand by and watch liberties being curtailed.

The events of Sept. 11 will probably give the green light to e-mail surveillance programs such as the FBI’s Carnivore, which it recently renamed DCS1000, no doubt in hopes that the dull name would stave off media attention. Soon after the attacks, the U.K. government asked Internet service providers to retain all communications data for the next month. The government made this request under the Data Protection Act. A nice euphemism.

Indeed, the threats to our privacy were already grave before the events of Sept. 11 unfolded because of laws such as the U.K. government’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Under that act, the government can demand the encryption keys of any communications data, under penalty of imprisonment for those who don’t comply. Furthermore, those requested to hand over the information are prevented from telling anyone about it, unless they’re willing to face up to five years in prison.

And the U.S. already had Echelon, a system which has never officially been acknowledged, which is designed to monitor global communications.

These are extraordinary powers that give government agencies the right to invade privacy in a way that would never be allowed if they took similar measures to eavesdrop on conversations we have with people in the confines of our homes, our offices and our restaurants and cafes. Why should conversations we have with our friends and colleagues through e-mail and the Internet be treated any differently than conversations we have with them face to face?

No doubt the knowledge that such measures are being taken will give some people a sense of security (indeed, some will probably argue that such measures need to be enhanced since they weren’t able to prevent the attacks). No doubt many Canadians and Americans felt more secure, or at least a sense of satisfaction, when people of Japanese descent were carted off during World War II. But it was wrong to punish a group of people because of their heritage. And it’s wrong to treat all those who use a certain medium to communicate as if they were all criminals who don’t have a right to privacy.

RIPA and Echelon were put into place long before the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked. What will governments around the world do now that they have those attacks to point to as a justification for spying?

There’s some concern that the U.S., which recently eased restrictions on cryptography will once again tighten them. In light of the attacks, the U.S. government wants the ability to get roving wiretaps. This means once officials have obtained a warrant to tap someone’s conversations, they can tap all phones the person might use without getting further warrants, not just that person’s own phone. The government also wants the ability to obtain phone records without getting a warrant so that it can find out who’s talking to whom. This is the kind of information that senator McCarthy was interested in.

I’m sure there are those who think that giving up privacy is a small price to pay for a sense of security. After all, what are a few freedoms when our lives are at stake? But what’s life without freedom?