Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Hello, Passengers, We're Listening

Some folks are naturally suspicious of government, and thereby primed to react strongly whenever it suggests an action they disapprove of. Take the example of the United States, where a general distrust of the government is one of the unifying factors of the modern right wing. While it's wise not to take anything a government says at face value with no critical analysis, it's equally wise to do the same for everything; in many respects, for-profit corporations have far more incentive to do things worthy of suspicion than do governments.

In Canada, that anti-government suspicion has been surfacing in fits and starts over the last year, ever since Stephen Harper got his majority and decided it was time to show Canadians what happens when the Conservatives have no checks on their power - for the record, what happens is along the lines of "fuck you, we're doing this anyway." The petulant refusal of the Conservatives to even consider breaking up their omnibus budget bill last week, the robotic party discipline which fuels the flames that lick at Canadian democracy... what, I ask, are they trying to hide from us? That is the sort of thing we should be focused on, the sort of thing we should hold the government to account over, the sort of thing we should make sure that we do not forget.

When it comes to this sort of situation, it's all about picking battles... but some people are so fired up that they want to pick them all.

Recently, the Canada Border Services Agency stated that it is working toward the installation of HD cameras and microphones capable of "[eavesdropping] on travellers' conversations." It didn't take long for this news to spread across the internet; Boing Boing pointed to it with the delightfully unbiased headline "Canadian government wants to fill airports with KGB-style hidden microphones." I've seen others react with surprise at the announcement... surprise that this wasn't already being done. I mean, these are airports we're talking about; places where my mom instructed me to never so much as utter the word "bomb" in any context whatsoever. To be honest, I was a bit surprised this wasn't already going on myself.

To be really honest, I'm having a hard time getting worked up over this.

"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that. Please repeat your threat in the direction of the microphone."

I understand that when a government agency suggests surveillance, opposition is the appropriate automatic reaction; otherwise, democracy would probably last about half an hour. But we can't just build our policies and our outlooks based on automatic responses. This is not Nineteen Eighty-Four; this is not even close to it. Nobody's installing telescreens in our homes, nobody's wiring up public squares for audio/video monitoring, no one's tagging dissidents or making them disappear. These are, realistically, airports - places where something like eighty-seven percent of all the conversations these microphones could capture would deal with how some Air Canada flight is delayed yet again, or Air Canada lost someone's luggage, or that Air Canada is expensive and sucks.

They are, traditionally, not places that are vital to free expression. Airports are not public squares, and there wasn't any "Occupy LaGuardia" or "Occupy YVR" last year. Unless you work there, if you're there for more than a couple of hours than either you've gone through security really early, or Air Canada is delaying your flight by five hours. If this was something different, something more wide-ranging like banning all usage of photography or recording devices in airports, that would be a serious affront to our rights and cause for pushback; after all, that sort of law would have allowed the RCMP to sweep the circumstances regarding the death of Robert Dziekanski right under the rug.

Really, it's the idea of the slippery slope that has so many people fired up, I think. I wouldn't be surprised if Boing Boing's rather hyperbolic headline is at least partially motivated by that; Cory Doctorow, though originally from Canada, now lives in the United Kingdom and is well aware of what a surveillance state is like, and a UK-style ubiquitous CCTV setup should absolutely be prevented from being built in Canada.

The important thing is to pick one's battles. There are a lot of people who won't get worked up about this sort of surveillance in airports, who wouldn't see anything wrong with it, who would look at the people closing ranks against it and wonder what their problem is. Raising awareness about this kind of surveillance in airports is always a good thing, but unless it threatens to go beyond the airport... there are plenty of battles to be fought, and choosing the wrong ones only weakens the whole.

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