Analysis

After Paris, there will be no stopping the surveillance state now

Public surveillance is growing by leaps and bounds, particularly in Europe, Neil Macdonald writes. It is being abetted not just by the "pitiless men with Kalishnikovs," but by a complicit entertainment media fuelled on whodunnits and the triumph over evil.

Public surveillance increasing at an 'accelerating rate,' researchers say, with Europe leading the way

CCTV footage of three British girls catching a flight to Turkey in February to join ISIS dominated the news media for days and likely contributed to the public thirst for answers. (Metropolitan Police/Associated Press)

An old acquaintance who spent years in Canada's secret world, where he developed a you-don't-know-the-half-of-it smile, regularly sends me taunting emails and links.  

The general theme is that thanks to all the whinging in the mainstream media about civil liberties, and the cavilling by politicians who disagreed with Stephen Harper about the imminent danger posed by Islamic terrorism to Canadians everywhere, our security agencies are unnecessarily hobbled.

After the mass murders in Paris this week, he passed on an article by the conservative writer Mark Steyn, who wrote that instead of meeting about climate change, "a problem that doesn't exist," Western leaders should be doing something about the millions of Muslims who now live in Europe, most of whom "at a certain level either wish or are indifferent to the death of the societies in which they live — modern, pluralist, Western societies."

My friend the ex-spy — who, like a number of security professionals I've met over the years, holds an advanced degree — clearly believes the only sensible remedy is increased powers for state security organs.

And that anyone who refuses to accept that premise, or who wants to debate root causes, is quite simply advocating self-destruction.  

John Brennan, the CIA director, used the Paris massacre to make essentially the same point this week, denouncing "a lot of hand-wringing over the government's role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists."

Brennan was referring to the backlash created by former CIA/NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who, after fleeing the U.S., provided reporters with proof that America's electronic eavesdroppers for years have been scooping up the "metadata" of just about every email and phone call in the country.

This was being done without warrants and was determined to be illegal, and prompted remedial action by both the president and Congress.

CIA Director John Brennan came out strongly against privacy advocates and hand-wringers this week. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

In the view of Brennan and his cohort in the secret world, that reaction was insane.

To them, privacy concerns are nothing more than the clucking of utopian dilettantes when set against the requirements of security agencies, which are, after all, charged with protecting us in the real world.

The New York Times replied to Brennan with an editorial titled "Mass Surveillance is Not the Answer," noting in the process that Brennan and other security chiefs have lied on several occasions to the American people, and have never proven that their saturation-level monitoring of the public has actually prevented any attack.

But what Brennan didn't mention — and no doubt covets — are the tools European security agencies now have at their disposal. They would make any American or Canadian intelligence officer drool.

Complicit media

Britain has literally created a surveillance state. The British Security Industry Authority estimated three years ago the government has installed about six million closed-circuit TV cameras in the public square; one for every 10 citizens.

The average Londoner is recorded several hundred times a day.

The French, too, have vastly expanded public video surveillance in recent years.

And it's all been done with overwhelming support from the general public, which feels safer for the presence of the surveillance, never mind the lack of objective proof that they are more protected against outrages, which keep on occurring.

Certainly, the mass media has helped validate the all-seeing lenses.

In movies like the Jason Bourne franchise and TV shows like the BBC's Spooks (re-titled MI-5 in North America), the first thing the secret services do when some nefarious plot hatches is order up the surveillance video, which of course shows the bad guys from multiple angles all over the city, and results in an eventual triumph over evil.

And let's not forget that the French and British security agencies, unlike their American and Canadian counterparts, can listen to or read pretty much any communication they like, anytime they like, without the bother of obtaining judicial permission.

The reason for this is rooted in European history; both England and France are former colonial powers that have known war intimately, and long ago subordinated individual rights to collective security.

Canada and America more dearly cherish individual rights. Still, a surveillance state is growing here, too.

An 'accelerating' trend

In a 2006 report, Canada's privacy commissioner stated that "partly in response to a growing perception that video surveillance increases our security, video surveillance of public spaces is increasing rapidly."

It "presents a challenge to privacy, to freedom of movement and freedom of association, all rights we take for granted in Canada," said the report.

Not everyone is a fan of the proliferation of CCTV cameras in the U.K. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

The commissioner has produced several reports since then, discussing things like facial recognition software, and has suggested guidelines for public surveillance, many of which have been simply ignored.

David Lyon, a professor of surveillance studies at Queen's University, has identified several public surveillance trends, all of which he says are "increasing at an accelerating rate."

Canada is not about to become Western Europe, he says, but "it is incumbent upon us as a society to think about the ethical consequences" of mass surveillance.

John Brennan and his peers in the secret world would call that more hand-wringing.

They would argue that the cameras are desperately needed tools, and that anyone who isn't doing anything wrong has nothing to worry about.

That of course is the police state justification. But it has a powerful appeal to law-abiding citizens when pitiless men appear in suicide vests firing Kalashnikovs into crowds.

They hate us because we are free, we are told. The fact that we've responded by giving up ever more freedom doesn't seem to matter.

There. I just wrung my hands again.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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