Crises are the perfect breeding ground for authoritarians and social engineers. The extreme measures governments have rolled out to contain the COVID-19 pandemic remind us that fear often trumps any proportionality or civil-liberties concern.
Since it originated in Wuhan, the crisis has exposed the spread and depth of the Communist Party of China’s mass-surveillance apparatus. Through smartphones, the Chinese government tracks citizens’ movements in real-time and decides who can go to public spaces and use transportation. Ubiquitous cameras capable of facial recognition store movement records. Like a scene out of George Orwell’s 1984, police drones chase and scold people outside their homes.
Rather than recoiling in horror and denouncing this overreach, Western nations and media have reacted with a mix of envy and awe. Israel, South Korea, Singapore and India have copied the Orwellian tactics. The United Kingdom, Germany, France, the United States and others are looking into or have already developed “contact-tracing phone apps” to alert those who may have been near an infected person.
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In Canada, authorities at the federal and provincial levels are openly – and not so openly – moving forward with several initiatives. Here are five ways the surveillance state is trying to look over Canadians’ unsuspecting shoulders.
Cellphone data collection
This data is officially in the works and unofficially underway. Toronto Mayor John Tory sparked outrage in late March when he told thousands of viewers of an online event that “cellphone companies give us all the data on the pinging off their network on the weekend, so we could see where people were still congregating … I asked for it and I’m getting it.”
A city spokesman later tried to walk back, claiming the mayor misspoke and referenced a mere offer by an unnamed carrier to share cellphone information.
Asked whether it could happen nationwide, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “all options” were on the table during the health emergency.
The Ontario government has announced it would welcome such a move.
And Bell Canada left the door open, saying it “would consider it if it helps in the fight against COVID-19 while respecting privacy laws.”
Police access to medical data
In Ontario, the declaration of a state of emergency means the province’s police can check a government database for someone’s otherwise confidential COVID-19 status information.
Officers with respondent and patrolling duties in Waterloo already have access, which they promise will only be used “to prevent, respond to or alleviate the effects of the COVID-19 emergency.”
The data will remain in police records for six more months after the state of emergency ends.
Canada’s track record of safeguarding medical information is not great.
‘Voluntary’ tracking apps are coming
Several Canadian cities and provinces are exploring or introducing apps to let their users share location data with health authorities.
The line between optional and mandatory apps is blurry. At least one province, Alberta, has left the door open to enforcing quarantine orders with smartphones.
If authorities require the app to access government buildings, public spaces, or transportation, Canadians’ freedom of movement could end up significantly restricted.
Big data intelligence
Not one to miss an opportunity to push for broader surveillance, the nation’s spy agencies are quietly operating behind the scenes.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has secured sweeping powers to collect and analyze more information on Canadian citizens. We don’t know what classes of data CSIS plans to collect and why, as the agency deleted that from disclosed documents.
Reliance on Chinese technology
Canada continues to use made-in-China equipment that other countries have deemed a national-security risk.
Most of Transport Canada’s drones are from a Chinese firm the U.S. government has grounded over espionage concerns.
The Canadian army also operates surveillance cameras our southern neighbour has banned for potentially sending information back to Beijing.
If contact-tracing apps become widespread on phones, the potential damage of foreign meddling vastly increases.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has urged Trudeau and the premiers to use COVID-19 tech surveillance as a last resort. It seems we’re headed in that direction anyway. The federal privacy commissioner has already issued guidance on how to conduct data collection, given its swift rise.
Canadians must not lower their guards. Americans know from the aftermath of 9/11 and Edward Snowden’s revelations how politicians exploit fear and tragedy to their own ends.
“As authoritarianism spreads, as emergency laws proliferate, as we sacrifice our rights, we also sacrifice our capability to arrest the slide into a less liberal and less free world,” Snowden said in a recent interview.
The virus will pass, but the surveillance state is a guest that always overstays its welcome.
Fergus Hodgson is the executive editor of Antigua Report, a columnist with the Epoch Times and a research associate with Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Daniel Duarte contributed to this article.
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