The Canadian Surveillance State: US-Style Politics Creep North

EspañolWe are not in any way shape or form wanting extra powers for police to pursue information online without warrants. At least that’s what former Canadian Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said in 2007 to a then freshly appointed Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Speaking to Jesse Brown of Maclean’s magazine, Day was responding to criticism about a reported “lawful access” crime bill that would have given police forces greater access to the personal information of Canadians online without having to seek court approval. The mere rumor of the proposal generated such uproar that Day, in backtracking to the Ottawa Citizen, labeled the measure as a blatant affront to Canadians’ expectation of privacy rights.

But that was 2007. In 2014, things have changed drastically.

Despite emphatic denials that Harper’s administration was contemplating the lawful access bill, two years later, Peter Van Loan — who took over for Day as public safety minister in 2008 — put forward a bill with an identical title. Given what we now know about state surveillance, the onset of Harper’s administration was simply a ripple in the water.

Privacy violations aside, the bulk of the backlash seven years ago emanated from the bill’s resemblance to policies of the United States. Until recently, any suggestion that a decision in Canada at all resembled one coming from south of the border was the equivalent of declaring political war. With steadily increased state monitoring under Harper, however, those same insinuations have lost luster; where accusations of “US-style” politics once drew ire, many Canadians have now begrudgingly come to grips with its normalization.

On Monday, this new status quo was once again reinforced when yet another egregious privacy violation came to light. After a year-long investigation, Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s information and privacy minister, released a special report revealing — and demanding the end to — the provincial police’s sharing of Ontarians’ confidential mental illness information with US officials. Cavoukian first launched the investigation after a rash of complaints from Ontario residents who claimed they were denied entry to the United States by US Border Patrol based on their mental health history.

Perhaps the most publicized example was that of Toronto resident Ellen Richardson, who was refused entrance to the United States late last year.

“I was turned away, I was told, because I had a hospitalization in the summer of 2012 for clinical depression,” Richardson told the Toronto Star. “I was so aghast. I was saying, ‘I don’t understand this. What is the problem?’”

Richardson wasn’t alone in her confusion, and Cavoukian’s report sheds light on an ongoing and disturbing problem in the province of Ontario: the indiscriminate sharing of highly sensitive and privileged information regarding mental health.

Richardson — who is a paraplegic and attempted suicide in 2001 as a result of delusions — was hospitalized in 2012 for clinical depression, her first serious setback since beginning treatment in 2001. US customs officials used this as the basis to refuse her entry when traveling for a 10-day Caribbean cruise.

In turning her away, the border agent cited section 212 of the US Immigration and Nationality Act, which denies entry to people who have had a physical or mental disorder that may pose a threat to the country. In the pinnacle of ironic twists, further details of the decision were not released, as US Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Jenny Burke decreed doing so would violate their privacy laws.

The question Richardson and all Canadians have been asking since is how US border officials — or anybody not connected to the medical treatment of patients — had access to the records at all.

According to Cavoukian, many police forces automatically upload highly sensitive and personal mental health information to the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database. The database is then accessible to Canadian law enforcement agencies and also shared with the FBI and Homeland Security in the United States.

The revelation of such private information being made readily available sent shock waves through the nation this week. Echoing those sentiments, Cavoukian, in a press conference held last Monday, aptly stated, “I found it so unnerving to think about the humiliation and embarrassment that an individual would feel upon arriving at the airport and being denied entry to the United States because … they had access to their highly sensitive personal information about a past suicide attempt.”

While demeaning, embarrassing, and an egregious violation, the news is not surprising. Monday’s report is simply the latest example in a long line of recent privacy violations. While this one resonates at the provincial level, it would be naive to believe that it is not going on at a higher level; it’s yet another instance of an overarching trend of adherence, and pandering, to US policies under the current administration.

Mere months ago, Glenn Greenwald released a report detailing how the Canadian government tracked travelers through the Wi-Fi at an unnamed Canadian airport. There’s also the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) which, after it takes effect July 1, will mandate that all financial institutions globally report information of their US clients to the IRS — of which Canada has obliged. The only aspect resembling resistance in this regard is a bureaucratic twist in using the Canadian tax authority as the middle-man, before then reporting directly to the IRS.

Cavoukian’s report also comes on the heels of a new agreement between the two countries to compile a shared, biographic database of residents’ border-crossings, starting in June. Branded under the umbrella of “combating terrorism,” the agreement epitomizes Canada’s recent enthusiasm to surrender its citizens’ information to an increasingly overbearing US government.

The notion that citizens need to have their actions tracked and communications monitored at all times is inherently a US-American one. Increasingly, though, it has crept into Canadianism. After this latest episode, one can’t help but wonder: when is enough, enough?

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