Balancing individual rights and national security

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In his recent remarks at the Economic Club of Canada, Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS) director David Vigneault indicated that new national security threats are keeping the country’s spies awake at night. While Vigneault acknowledged that terrorism is still a concern, he said that “foreign interference and espionage” are the “greatest threat to our prosperity and national interest.”

Vigneault characterized terrorism as a public safety threat, while he called  foreign interference and espionage threats to national prosperity and interest. These, he said, “pose greater strategic challenges” than terrorism.

This shift in focus is significant. Stephanie Carvin, a professor at Carleton University, tweeted, “This is BIG-for the first time since 2001 a @csiscanada Director has declared the most significant threat to Canada is foreign interference and espionage-NOT terrorism. This actually changes the threat environment considerably. BIG news. #cndnatsec.”

Vigneault’s remarks suggest that CSIS might see a need for greater surveillance of Web activity by individuals and groups that harbour extremist views and share them through private chatrooms and channels. Most Canadians will accept and even applaud such preemptive actions. But there is a line to be drawn.

In the past, our security institutions have targeted individual protesters, including activist groups in Waterloo region, and have infiltrated student groups. As these agencies make plans to respond to new security concerns, it is important that we all remain alert to surveillance and control of public space, both online and offline.

Of course, we should be concerned about espionage and foreign interference in the institutions on which our democracy and individual rights are based. But must we sacrifice those rights in the process? Where do we draw the line between greater monitoring of our online discussions and offline activism and the eroding of our core values?

Better education about the threats posed and the authorized responses is needed. And we need to learn about and then vigorously defend the rights of all Canadians. A growing rhetoric about foreign interference could unfairly target some immigrant communities. We might self-censor and not openly criticize government and other institutional policies that we feel negatively impact our communities.

Just look at the global War on Terror. It has profoundly changed how we travel across borders, affected our sense of security on our streets, and contributed to what some call “the forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Canadians who have come from places in which they had no personal freedom and lived in fear know that vigilance is necessary to preserve our rights and core values. So do those of us who study surveillance and security institutions. Curtailing essential freedoms to preserve national security is never an acceptable solution.

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