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Anti-terror bill trades freedom for illusion of security

Image: Flickr/doviende

The potential destruction of terrorism is infinitesimally smaller than the damage done to our rights by a disproportionate attempt to prevent it.

Please. Please remember this. It's even more important now, when that fact is so easily forgotten in the wake of the attack on our Parliament and the tragic deaths of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo.

We cannot allow the extreme actions of a few to strip us of the freedoms those soldiers worked so hard to protect. But the Canadian government continues to roll back our rights in the name of "security."

Need an example of a real imminent threat? Look no further than the recently tabled Bill C-44, "The Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act."

Writing that title just sent a chill down my spine. I hope it scares you too.

Let's step back for a second. The current surveillance situation in Canada is bad enough without C-44's expansion of spying powers. CSEC is monitoring Canadians' telecommunications data, even though our laws expressly prohibits the agency from doing so. CSIS and the RCMP have a well-documented history of spying on protesters. These agencies also have a total lack of oversight or accountability; even though we know the government is spying on us, we have almost no idea how or why.

It's terrifying.

Yet the situation is about to get worse. Our government is already in the midst of giving spies more power through the passage of Bill C-13 (better known as the Cyberbullying Bill), which makes it easier for law enforcement agencies to surveil Canadians and allows Internet Service Providers to voluntarily turn your information over to the government without consequence, and without notifying you. The bill is so broad that even Carol Todd -- mother of Amanda Todd, whose heartbreaking death helped inspire C-13 -- has spoken out against its surveillance provisions.

And now, following last month's attacks, the government wants to expand its spying powers even further through C-44. The bill has a lot of problems, but I want to concentrate on just one. C-44 would cut judicial oversight out of the admission of information from confidential informants at trial, automatically preserving the anonymity of those informants. In other words, Canadians would lose the right to confront their accusers in court; in essence, it's the loss of our right to due process.

But of course these bills have been justified using the exact same reasoning that authoritarian governments around the world use to curtail civil liberties: security from "terrorism." This term has an incredibly loose definition that invokes fear in the public and makes it easier for governments to push forward what would otherwise be indefensible rights violations. 

There are two glaring problems in using security as a justification for rolling back rights. First, this widespread government surveillance doesn't work. As is so often the case with our completely dysfunctional Access to Information system, we have very little data about this in Canada. But a U.S. study shows that out of 225 indictments, convictions, or kills for terrorism-related activity since 9/11, only four cases (less than two per cent) were influenced by metadata collection. What worked in the other 98.3 per cent of cases? Standard police practices -- speaking with community groups, families, and confidential informants -- practices that don't violate the rights of every citizen in the country.

This leads to the second problem. These kinds of powers do enormous, irreparable harm to our society. Terrorism, really, is a relatively small threat. How small? According to the U.S. State Department, only 17 non-combatant Americans were killed worldwide in terror attacks in 2011. There were more in 2010, 25 to be exact. That may sound high, but it's four fewer than the 29 people killed by lightning strikes in the US that year. It's also far below the 33,561 people killed in car crashes in the country in 2012.  And we must remember that the lone-wolf attacks we endured last week are, although terrifying, extremely rare.

More extreme laws aren't the answer. You can reduce the number of those inclined to violence with solid, community-based prevention programs, better mental health support, and by working to stop radicalization, ghettoization, and feelings of alienation among disadvantaged or minority groups. But if someone decides to go on a killing spree, all we can do is hope they don't have access to heavy-duty weaponry (which, in Canada, they most likely won't), and that our frontline officers and security personnel are there to stop them. 

In other words, Kevin Vickers can stop an attack in progress. Monitoring the text messages of 35 million people won't do a damn thing. But the surveillance will take one more swipe at our civil rights, the cornerstone of our democracy. 

The justification for curtailing these rights is always "security." But our government is currently selling us nothing more than a costly illusion. And once our rights are gone, they won't come back. Like airport security and drone strikes, their loss will become nothing more than an uncomfortable normality and the voices of dissent will grow quieter over time. 

We will always have an extremely small number of violent people looking to attack innocents.  Some of them will always be able to find weapons. Our rights, however, enjoy no such guarantees.

Don't hand them over. Fight this legislation, and let our government know you won't stand by while they curtail your freedom.

Tom Henheffer is the Executive Director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), an organization that has been protecting the right to free expression in Canada and around the world for more than 30 years.

Image: Flickr/doviende

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