Electronic Surveillance Violates Civil Liberties.


Thesis: The use of electronic surveillance techniques, including wiretapping, video surveillance, and interception software, by national security agencies in the twenty-first century has violated the public’s right to privacy and will lead to further infringements on the civil liberties of Canadian citizens..

No Warrant

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, the Canadian government adopted new anti-terrorism legislation that gave more authority to law enforcement and national security agencies in their investigations of potential terrorists. This legislation, called the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) and formerly known as Bill C-36, allowed for more lenient stipulations involving electronic surveillance, which included monitoring the phone conversations of suspects and video surveillance, without judicial consent. Prior to this legislation, when a law enforcement agency such as the Canadian Central Intelligence Agency (CSIS) or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) wished to monitor an individual through electronic devices such as wiretaps, they had to seek approval from a judge, who would then issue a warrant.

The ATA eliminated this judicial process when the situation in question dealt with a foreigner attempting to communicate internationally. Instead of seeking a warrant from a judge, these agencies are now only required to obtain the approval of the Minister of National Defense. However, unlike a judge, the defense minister is not an unbiased, objective observer. While this legislation can only apply to intelligence gathering, and can only be implemented by members of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) (a branch of the CSIS) this new process nonetheless constitutes an infringement on the freedoms of Canadians by essentially allowing national security agencies to accuse a member of the public without due process, a crucial right granted to every citizen by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For example, the Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement may only use wiretaps as a last resort when investigating a criminal. Therefore, the ATA is in direct violation of this ruling and should be contested.

Scaremongering Tactics

The September 2001 terrorist attacks resulted in a frenzied discussion in the mass media over whether such a large scale terrorist attack could occur in Canada. This uproar gave the Canadian government the public approval it needed to pass legislation that would never have been allowed prior to the attacks. Bill C-36 was passed a mere thirty-four days after September 11. There was virtually no public discourse over whether the bill should be passed into law, and there was very little debate in Parliament. It was assumed that, due to the fear of any future terrorist attack, Canadian citizens would stand idle while civil liberties were trampled and exploited. Governments are taking the public for granted in situations like this. In addition, these scare-mongering tactics put an immense amount of pressure on national security agencies to catch terrorists, as it is expected that this legislation will be legitimized by the apprehension of known terrorists. These two factors could easily lead to further infringements upon civil liberties.

New Networks to Monitor Citizens

In 2005, the federal government passed a law that forced the telecommuni
cations industry to include embedded devices that would easily enable the monitoring and surveillance of telephone and Internet usage and provide access to Internet subscription information. These mechanisms are a dangerous notion, and allow other businesses and governments to monitor their citizens with added ease. It is not difficult to see how these devices could be abused and lead to further infringements on our freedom. These new measures allow law enforcement and national security agencies more access to personal information than ever before, and the legitimacy of having such information must be questioned. In order to combat this, there needs to be more scrutiny from objective third parties, or privacy watchdogs.

A number of municipalities, such as Toronto, have also introduced closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) on public street corners to monitor crime and to dissuade terrorists. The first city to do this on a large scale was London, England; so far the cameras have proved inefficient and costly, the most obvious example being illustrated by the London subway bombings in 2005. Despite having CCTV cameras, the bombings still occurred undetected. It was only after the bombings that authorities were able to identify the terrorists through the video footage. While CCTV cameras have that benefit—the ability to study an action after the fact—they do very little in the way of prevention or real-time crime fighting.

In addition, CCTV cameras conjure up images of Orwellian totalitarianism, as popularized in George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949). For instance, we can be monitored at every step on our way to and from work, and law enforcement officials would not need a warrant to view these tapes. This constitutes a direct violation of privacy. Furthermore, placing these cameras throughout a city, and limiting their use to certain areas, only serves to displace crime and terrorism to unmonitored areas. For an unproved and untested form of prevention, it is also a substantial drain on taxpayers.


Electronic surveillance methods are an untested form of crime prevention. They lead us down a dangerous road of further threats to our civil liberties. If Canadians start to accept these small infringements, governments will begin to use the fear associated with terrorism to implement new laws that threaten our sense of freedom—which is the very principle we are trying to protect our society from when dealing with matters of national security..

By Andrew Pulsifer



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