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Who is watching the watchers?

Canada’s ‘professors of privacy’ are leaders in a global effort to understand the ways governments and corporations are using surveillance methods on average citizens – and to let the public know

By TREENA HEIN | SEP 08 2009
Who is watching the watchers?

September 11, 2001 was a tipping point in the balance between individual privacy and security. Fearful citizens seemed prepared to be watched more closely if it meant feeling more secure. Now, eight years later, the public doesn’t really have an understanding of the many ways and the degree to which we’re being scrutinized.

“Surveillance practices increase at an exponential rate,” says David Lyon, a Killam Research Fellow and sociology professor at Queen’s University, “while our understanding of their implications is not keeping pace.”

Internet tracking programs, security cameras, fingerprint and face recognition tools and many other technologies mean that our lives are under scrutiny as never before – watched both by governments and corporations. “Every institution is being transformed by this,” says Kevin Haggerty, sociology professor at the University of Alberta. “It’s producing monumental changes in human relations.”

This past June, the federal government introduced two bills that would give broad new powers to police. One of the bills would make it possible to collect information about Canadian Internet users without a warrant; the other would make it possible for police, with warrants, to intercept communications on people’s cell phones and other communications devices. A week earlier, the incoming head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service said that within two to four years, biometric data – digital fingerprints and photos – would be required of all visitors to Canada, not just those who need visas to come to the country.

Dr. Haggerty and Dr. Lyon are two of dozens of researchers from a variety of disciplines who are helping us understand the new uses of surveillance – why the practice has grown so quickly, how the tools are being used and how surveillance is affecting our lives. Dr. Lyon leads the Surveillance Project and Dr. Haggerty is a member of this multidisciplinary, collaborative research team, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

The public’s desire for security has combined with rapid development of technologies that can track and store personal information. Some tools, such as closed circuit television, were developed long ago specifically to watch events or people from afar. But other technologies now used for surveillance – telephones, databases, Global Positioning Systems, the Internet – were developed for different purposes.

Used as tracking devices, these tools can be both very profitable for companies and convenient for consumers. Who minds that online booksellers keep records of our purchases, when it’s so handy to get regular e-mails suggesting new titles we might like? Similarly, users of social networking sites don’t seem to care that the information about their favourite movies and music is being sold to other companies, as long as they have a platform to keep in touch. “To younger people,” says Dr. Haggerty, “even more important than privacy is exposure.”

The next level of surveillance, while offering real and purported benefits for members of the public, will result in large profits for select companies and more tools for governments, says Dr. Haggerty. He has written that soon there will be efforts to place Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips in our bodies containing information that can be accessed a short distance away. The chips will first be tried on criminals, he predicts, then on welfare recipients, followed by military personnel, children, dementia patients and employees. Chips will be sold as a perk, and punitive financial measures will be borne by hold-outs not yet on board.

“There will be no 3 a.m. knock on the door by storm troopers,” he wrote in the Toronto Star in 2006. “The process will be more subtle and cumulative, couched in the unassailable language of progress and social betterment, and mimicking many of the processes that have contributed to the expansion of closed-circuit television cameras and the corporate market in personal data.”

Ontarians recently gained the option of having “enhanced” driver’s licences that store unique identity numbers on embedded RFID chips. These licences are being promoted as tools that will hasten border crossings and provide better border security for all. Theoretically, this system will indeed promote speedier crossings and give the government access to more information. But the system depends on the database itself being secure from misuse and hackers, on the reliability of the protective sleeves that cover the licences, and on the proper use of the licences by every driver all the time.

“Many systems are designed so that they work as advertised, but only so long as things go according to plan,” elaborates Ian Goldberg, a computer science professor at the University of Waterloo who studies Internet transaction security. “Reality is more brittle. Users forget their passwords. Their computers are vulnerable to malware. They misunderstand security-relevant messages. They fall victim to phishing attacks.” He adds that companies losing customers’ personal information “is unfortunately extremely common – far surpassing adversarial break-ins.”

We soon may not have a choice in whether we want an enhanced driver’s licence or not. This is a grave concern to researchers like Ian Kerr, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Ethics, Law and Technology at the University of Ottawa. Technology now exists, he says, that has the potential to collect data “for which no [current] model of consent would even be workable.”

“The lynch-pin of consent is under fire,” continues Dr. Kerr, who led a large SSHRC-funded project called “On the Identity Trail” about anonymity and authentication in a networked society.

Surveillance researchers also worry about a development called “social sorting,” a practice made possible by combining computer databases to create profiles.

“We’re being put in categories and treated on the basis of what category we’re in, in terms of our opportunities and chances,” asserts Dr. Lyon of Queen’s. This can affect individuals’ access to government benefits, Internet service levels, insurance rates, flights and leisure opportunities. By linking databases, “judgments are made on the basis of social groups to which we purportedly belong,” says Dr. Lyon, “but the criteria are becoming hidden from sight.”

Recently, a Quebec man was denied a mortgage because the property he owned shared a postal code with a First Nations reserve; it was through his own investigations that he discovered that people with this postal code were considered a bad credit risk. In another case, a woman from Courtenay, B.C., couldn’t leave Canada because her name appeared on an international no-fly list. She hasn’t been able to discover why or get her name off the list.

Elia Zureik, an emeritus sociologist from Queen’s and a Surveillance Project researcher, is not surprised. “The number of errors in a large-scale system like that is bound to grow,” he says.

No-fly lists of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are being replaced this year with a system called Secure Flight, a development that clearly worries some advocacy groups. The new regulations will require all international air carriers to submit passenger lists and information in advance for U.S. approval if the flight path passes over U.S. airspace (exempting flights between two airports in either Canada or Mexico). In other words, it’s the U.S. government that will decide whether Canadian passengers may board international flights from Canada, whether U.S.-bound or not. The regulations don’t discuss how standards will be applied, how decisions will be made or how travellers can discover why they were denied permission to fly. The Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group wrote federal Transport Minister John Baird last December, objecting to the published regulations “for what they state as well as for what they fail to address.”

While citizens may be prepared to live with less privacy if it means better security, the purported benefits of surveillance technologies often don’t live up to their promises. This is a repercussion that governments and private business are reluctant to discuss. An estimated four million security cameras survey the streets of the United Kingdom, but there’s “little evidence they’ve reduced crime, which was the impetus for it,” says Richard Rosenberg, professor emeritus of computer science at the University of British Columbia. The only kind of street crime that’s been reduced, he says, is auto theft.

“Cameras will be brought in with the 2010 Olympics” in Vancouver and Whistler, he adds, “and they’ll stay.”
It’s a change he’s dead set against: “You should be anonymous in public spaces.”

Many surveillance researchers believe part of their job is educating the public. “People don’t care,” says Dr. Zureik, “but once you explain examples, they do care.”

Canadians are better served than citizens of many countries because of this country’s robust research and its advocacy movement that lobbies for privacy protection. This is reflected in centres such as the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, or CIPPIC, at the University of Ottawa’s faculty of law. Its mandate is to intervene for the public interest on information technology law-making. Canada also has privacy commissions at both the federal and provincial levels.

“We are way ahead,” observes Dr. Zureik. “Canada is ranked second in the world by various privacy watchdogs.”

He attributes this leadership partly to the sheer size of the country, where communication has always been important for a dispersed population. Dr. Lyon, the Queen’s sociologist, says the reason may spring from “the history of Communist regimes among our immigrant populations.” David Fewer, an Internet and technology lawyer who is acting director of CIPPIC, says Canada has a tradition of law professors getting involved with human rights and poverty issues, “and now they’re getting involved with privacy and surveillance.” He adds, “One can’t underestimate the influence of Michael Geist [Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at U of Ottawa] in inspiring others to be more active.”

Whatever the reasons, “Canada is definitely a leader in studying these issues,” says Dr. Haggerty of U of Alberta, “both in sheer numbers of researchers and on a per capita basis, with lots of different angles.”

Still, no one who cares about these issues is feeling complacent. Dr. Fewer of CIPPIC says some education takes place in schools, but he believes companies should be involved as well. “Private businesses such as MySpace and Facebook should provide easy-to-understand explanations of how to use their sites, how to protect your privacy, and why it matters,” he says, pointing to Google as one company that does an excellent job of this.

Once the public is engaged, there’s a much better chance at creating a world where surveillance serves us and not the other way around. How to ensure that that happens – perhaps even more than the warning of nightmarish scenarios – is to have a strong vision of the future we want.

“The technologies we should be adopting,” says U of Waterloo computer scientist Dr. Goldberg, are those that can provide both privacy and the necessary security, functionality and business processes – “technologies that allow users to prove that they are authorized to perform a particular action without revealing unnecessary personal details.”

We also need adequate privacy-protection laws, says Dr. Fewer. He believes that Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, or PIPEDA, needs more teeth. “The Privacy Commissioner is doing a great job,” he says, “but what she can do is severely restricted. When an alleged breach of PIPEDA is brought to her attention… she can’t order compliance or penalties. The complainant has to go to court for that, doing it all over again.”

Even if our laws were stronger, the technologies infallible and the public well-educated, there are still problems that Canada’s surveillance experts would like to see addressed.

Dr. Haggerty wants a world where the elites are themselves under scrutiny: “We need to ask which institutions pose the real threat and what we should be demanding from them.”

For Dr. Lyon, “Our special concern should be with the most vulnerable and voiceless – the elderly, non-tech-savvy, poor, refugees, minorities and so on.”

Dr. Kerr wants a future that resembles the past in some respects: “I do think that there are too many cameras. And too much data collection and too much information sharing.”

Dr. Zuriek, as well, wants limits. “If we continue on the path we’re on now, the technologies are going to become more and more invasive. If this goes on unchecked, it will be quite horrendous.”

After an event such as 9 / 11, he observes, “There is a willingness to forego privacy for enhanced security, but the willingness subsides over time. There is time to reflect and have second thoughts.”

Canada has the lead

For further information on some of Canada’s prominent surveillance projects and researchers, visit:

The Surveillance Project, based at Queen’s

The Information Policy Research Program (University of Toronto), an ongoing program of research examining key public policy issues, notably access, privacy and governance

On the Identity Trail (Ian Kerr and many others)

Paul Van Oorschot, Canada Research Chair in Network and Software Security, Carleton University

Canadian Internet and Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa

Company and organizational data loss reports (with new additions almost every day)

• Dalhousie University’sNetwork Information Management and Security (NIMS) Group, where researchers test, research and develop technology to fight computer viruses, hackers
and network attacks

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