TORONTO - In the novel '1984' George Orwell depicts a world where powerful and secretive authorities -- "Big Brother" -- scrutinize the intimate details of citizens' personal lives. That fiction may be closer to reality than most people think.
Earlier this month, for instance, CNN reported that police officers across the United States are carrying handheld wireless computers on which they can access private details from large commercial databases about anyone they encounter on their beat.
Emboldened by a new post-Cold War role in the U.S.-led "war on terrorism," security and intelligence agencies are exploring new electronic technologies that will enhance the collection and dissemination of the private records of citizens across international borders.
"It's all about data gathering and integration of databases, information sharing and risk assessment by computer generated profiling," says Roch Tass, coordinator of the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG), a coalition made up of NGOs, churches, unions, environmental and civil rights advocates and groups representing immigrant and refugee communities in Canada.
But the questionable accuracy of the information stored in files collected on citizens, the lack of clear protocols governing their use by police and security officials and the reliance on racial profiling to detain citizens with Third World backgrounds at airports concerns civil libertarians like Tass.
The role that information sharing between Canada's lead police agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and its U.S. counterparts played in the detention of Canadian citizen Maher Arar is now being probed by a government appointed inquiry in Ottawa.
Arar was seized by U.S. authorities in a New York airport in 2002 on suspicion of being a terrorist and subsequently deported to Syria, his country of birth, where he says he was tortured for nearly a year.
Lloyd Axworthy, a former Canadian foreign affairs minister, says he wonders if Arar's treatment can be connected to the cross-border agreements Canada and the United States entered into starting in December 2001 (just months after the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon), which he says give police and immigration agencies all kind of leeway on cooperation, including information-sharing.
"My position has always been that we are in fact in danger of actually limiting established rights (in Canada), without knowing whether we are or not," Axworthy told IPS.
Arar, a 34-year-old telecommunications engineer, claims Syrian authorities used torture to force him to make a false confession. Details allegedly from that interrogation that were leaked to the Canadian media by anonymous intelligence sources helped spark the public outcry that pushed Ottawa to call the inquiry.
But Canadian government lawyers are balking at full disclosure of the RCMP's communications with their U.S. counterparts while Arar was detained because, they say, revealing details might jeopardize existing international agreements involving the two countries.
A York University professor is suggesting that Ottawa seriously examine the relationship between Canadian and U.S. police and intelligence authorities, particularly when officials north of the border are kept "out of the loop 90 per cent of the time" on security matters involving the neighboring United States.
Daniel Drache, author of 'Borders Matter: Homeland Security and the Search for North America', wants the Canadian government to conduct an "audit" of the impact that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -- the powerful agency set up to protect the United States following 9/11 -- has had on Canada, including on immigration matters and on the rights guaranteed in the constitution.
In the absence of a "made in Canada security policy" under the current Liberal government, U.S. security priorities are driving policy decisions in Ottawa, argues Drache. Canadian authorities "are taking an ad hoc approach. They have no framework and they haven't made any assessment of Homeland Security," he adds.
Tass suggests the Canadian government will be forced to adopt a version of the database system being developed by Bermuda-based Accenture (formerly Anderson Consulting) in a multi-billion contract for DHS. The system will be designed to collect and track foreign nationals entering the United States, using digital photographs, fingerprints and other biometric information.
Accenture is a controversial name in the Canadian province of Ontario, where the previous Conservative government contracted the firm to design a computerized system to administer its social welfare programs. It has since proven to be so inflexible that it will cost the current administration a reported 7.6 million U.S. dollars to fix.
Nevertheless, Tass expects that the Accenture project and more advanced databases in the European Union will set the stage for development of compatible information systems that will be used by police and intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. "Basically, all of the developed countries will use the same technology; so all of the systems will be compatible everywhere."
Toronto-based information technology consultant Jesse Hirsh says that citizens in democratic nations do have a say, through their elected representatives, on the accuracy of the information stored on them in databanks.
But shared global databases out of reach of the average citizen, argues Hirsh, "transcend whatever democratic institutions we have for checks and balances. We have lost control of that data representation of ourselves. We can no longer influence its accuracy; we can no longer determine its level of privacy, in terms of who else gets to see our data representation."
© Copyright 2004 IPS - Inter Press Service