Erosion of Human Rights Begins with the Loss of the Right to Privacy

Canadian Speeches, March-April 2003 | Go to article overview

Erosion of Human Rights Begins with the Loss of the Right to Privacy


The right to privacy is claimed to be the foundation of all other human rights. In times of turmoil, it is often tempting to sacrifice these rights for safety. In the wake of September 11, the Canadian government is considering implementing technologies that will severely restrict the individual's privacy. A warning is issued that if implemented, Canada will no longer be a country of freedom, but of oppression. Presented to the Corporate Privacy & Information Access Branch and the IT Security, Common iT Services Branch of the B.C. Ministry of Management Services, Victoria, British Columbia, February 13, 2003.

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The theme of this conference is: "Frontiers of Privacy and Security: New Challenges for a New Century." Nothing could be more timely.

Even before September 11, it was my view that privacy would be the defining issue of this new decade.

That's because we are at a crossroads. On one hand, Canada's new private sector privacy law -- which will come fully into effect next January -- gives privacy a higher level of protection and recognition than ever before.

But on the other hand, technological advances -- in information technologies, surveillance technologies, biometrics, genetics -- have dramatically changed the balance.

Our privacy used to be protected pretty much by default, because someone would have had to go to a great deal of trouble to systematically invade the privacy of any one of us. Now it is we -as individuals and as a society - who must go to considerable trouble to ensure that privacy remains respected.

But the aftermath of September 11 has added a whole new dimension.

We are at a more decisive crossroads than ever, but now the time of decision is not a decade, let alone a century.

It is quite literally right now, in the coming weeks and months. The choices we make will determine not only what kind of society we have for ourselves, but what kind of society we leave to our children and grandchildren.

As many of you know, two weeks ago I presented Parliament and Canadians with my Annual Report.

The message that I had to deliver -- and that I want to discuss with you this morning--is very frankly one that I never thought would be necessary in this country.

The right of privacy is at the core of the basic freedoms of our society.

Privacy is sometimes described, in fact, as "the right from which all freedoms flow."

Freedom of speech, of thought, of association, to name just a few, are grounded in the idea that we have a private sphere of thought and action that is our business and nobody else's -- not our neighbors', not our employers', not some telemarketer's, and certainly not the state's.

And yet in Canada today, that fundamental human right is under unprecedented assault.

We are confronted with a series of Government initiatives that risk cutting the heart out of privacy rights in this country--rights that are well-established in the common law, in our privacy statutes, and in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

These initiatives grew out of the call for increased security after September 11, and anti-terrorism is their purported rationale.

But the aspects that present the greatest threat to privacy either have nothing at all to do with antiterrorism, or they will do nothing to enhance security. The government is simply using September 11 as an excuse for measures that have no place in a free and democratic society.

As Privacy Commissioner, I have always made it clear that I will never seek to stand in the way of measures that are necessary to protect us against terrorism, even if they involve some new intrusion or limitation on privacy.

And I have not, in fact, raised privacy objections against a single genuine anti-terrorist measure.

What I have opposed--and must oppose--is the extension of anti-terrorism measures to unrelated purposes, and intrusions on privacy whose value as anti-terrorism measures has not been demonstrated.

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