Bill C-51, known as the anti-terrorism bill, has drawn criticism for provisions that many feel are excessive and open to abuse. One of these provisions allows government agencies to share information about Canadians for reasons of national security.
Associate Professor Hasan Cavusoglu of Sauder's Management Information Systems Division weighs in on the privacy risks for Canadians.
What is the significance of the new information-sharing provisions in Bill C-51?
Privacy concerns over Bill C-51 stem from the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act, which is tucked in Bill C-51. The Act is portrayed as a means to empower law enforcement agencies to prevent terrorist attacks by quickly accessing information about potential terrorists from several government agencies. The scope of information-sharing is quite broad; it goes beyond just sharing information about suspected terrorist activities and threatens Canadians’ privacy.
What is the privacy risk involved in sharing information between government agencies?
The vagueness of the scope of the law could potentially lead to surveillance of the public for any purposes deemed appropriate by the government. This is the major criticism of the law: the power granted by the new act would result in an unjustified and significant loss of privacy for Canadians in return for a negligible improvement in the nation’s ability to prevent a terrorist attack. The loss of privacy is excessive.
Are these anti-terror provisions warranted?
The government justifies the bill by instilling fear, uncertainty and doubt, which is a tactic used by marketers and politicians to influence people’s perceptions by disseminating inaccurate or false information. There is no question that terrorism is a threat in Canada, like anywhere else. But one has to understand how likely it is. Dying as a result of a car accident is 1,000 times more likely than dying as a result of a terror attack. Dying in a terror attack is less likely than being killed by a lightning strike.
The potential benefit of the information-sharing act is that more information will be readily available to law enforcement agencies. This could be a good thing: more information could potentially improve the odds of stopping terrorist acts. But once again, fear, uncertainty and doubt are at play – information regarding a potential terror suspect in various government institutions can already be accessed through the judicial system if a case is made.
What other concerns do you have about the bill’s information-sharing provisions?
While the act seems to facilitate information sharing between 17 governmental institutions, in fact it grants authority to the government to expand the list. The government can share information with other countries about Canadians if they see fit. Since there is no clear oversight, there is no guarantee that information of a significant portion of the Canadian population cannot be handed over to other countries as the government deems it appropriate. It’s not clear who will monitor those who are accessing information.
The vagueness of the scope, the lack of oversight, and the potential expansion of the reach of the act make privacy advocates very concerned about the law. In fact, privacy commissioners across the country are opposed the proposed act. It’s also concerning that the government does not want to hear objections: the privacy commissioner of Canada, who was appointed by the government, was prevented from appearing before the committee in Parliament.
It seems that the bill is politically charged. The need is not well justified considering its risks against personal privacy. The government appears to be rushing the bill due to the upcoming election. Add onto that, the room for abuse due to poor oversight and I am not convinced this is the proper answer to mitigate the terror threat.