Fear vs. Freedom: Is Mass Surveillance Worth Trading One for the Other?

By: Sophie Lewick – Blog Writer

As prompted by the Lagacé scandal, public hearings to address procedures for police investigations of journalists are scheduled to take place late this month. While the incident generated public concern and discussion of issues involving freedom of expression and surveillance, there remains a lack of cohesion in the general public’s opinion on surveillance technologies.

At a time of heightened tension between nations, Canadians are rightly concerned about the safety of our citizens. For Canadians who claim to have nothing to hide, it seems like a rational trade-off to sacrifice a little privacy for safety against terrorism. Such beliefs have lead to the support of decisions to increase surveillance technologies, such as the passing of Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act.

16588975577_a6a3ca7c30_bSource: Flickr

Bill C-51 grants more power to Canada’s security agencies to criminalize and detain anyone anyone suspected to pose a “threat to national security.” However, it also gives authorities permission to freely collect data on Canadians, the use of which is not necessarily only investigating suspected terrorist activity. Such activity is a blatant violation of privacy rights. Furthermore, the Canadian government’s reluctance to repeal or modify Bill C-51 itself fosters fear and gives legitimacy to mass surveillance efforts to stop terrorism despite the bulk of evidence against its efficacy.

The impositions of mass surveillance efforts on journalistic capabilities are severe, and worth considering more closely. In La Presse columnist, Patrick Lagacé’s case, Montreal police confessed to having monitored his iPhone in order to identify one of his sources, an officer who was suspected to be leaking information about the police force. If measures are not taken to protect journalists and their sources, media content will be seriously warped to give us a rose-coloured view of those in power, who have basically been given the authority to reduce these supposed “threats.”

Glenn Greenwald (lawyer who published the Snowden leaks) on why privacy matters

One study from 2013 published by PEN America revealed that 1 in 6 writers have avoided reporting on a topic for fear of being subjected to surveillance. Four years later, journalists continue to play an important role as educators, and more than ever their content is at risk of being censored. People need to be concerned about media freedoms, and having access to accurate, high quality news. We have a right to freedom of speech as well as a right to information, and we should feel compelled to fight for it.

The bill that was supposedly created to protect us is being used to stifle freedom of press and instead protect authorities from being called into question. As Snowden put it, in his address to McGill students, “It’s not a good question to ask whether or not it’s effective to watch people. The question is do we want to live in a world without human rights.”

Regardless of your personal stance on mass surveillance, Canadians have an obligation to bring the matter to the forefront of public discussion, as it is an issue that concerns the entire country’s privacy and rights. There is also the matter of reaching those who are less inclined to read about media issues. Journalists in turn have an obligation to facilitate conversation with a wider audience, and keep the conversation going. The worst thing we can do right now is to stop talking about it.

Sophie is a U2 student studying Psychology and Biology at McGill. She is interested in freedom of expression in the media and technological literacy.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of OpenMedia McGill.

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