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Sunday, April 8, 2007

Supposed Security

Interesting that the author gives good evidence that with all the new surveillance it likely it would not have prevented 9/11. I can think of other reasons why that might be the case!

Supposed Security
All that high-tech gadgetry and security that's meant to keep us safe is really just an illusion, says Ottawa author Maureen Webb

Chris Cobb
The Ottawa Citizen


Sunday, April 08, 2007


Security, or the illusion of it, has become an increasingly intrusive part of our everyday lives since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

We tolerate the inconsistent security dance at airports, the lineups at international borders, inflated airport security fees attached to airfares and the inconveniences and restrictions on freedom of movement. We tolerate without necessarily being convinced that any of it makes a whit of difference to our communal safety.

That's what we know because it's in our faces every day.

In Illusions of Security, Ottawa human rights lawyer Maureen Webb focuses on what we don't know and makes the overriding point that, in the name of security, electronic surveillance of ordinary citizens has become pervasive and intrusive. And while it is largely ineffective against perceived terrorist threats, she adds, electronic surveillance is proving a boon to private industry -- both those producing the technology and those starting to use it for reasons unrelated to terrorism.

Webb, co-chair of the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, cautions against governments out of control and other institutions, including colleges and universities and the unlikely Professional Association of Driving Instructors, willingly handing over students' private information to government agencies.

Webb's book is nothing if not well documented and although it contains familiar passages -- the sad tale of Maher Arar and a tirade against the administration of George W. Bush, for example -- it is an important and valuable counter to the government-stoked prevailing wisdom that what we have forfeited in terms of freedom and privacy is a small price to pay for collective safety.

Global security measures, writes Webb, don't make us more secure: "They only create illusions of security. Illusions that do little to catch or stop terrorists and that ensnare the innocent, divert resources away from better initiatives, obscure our public policy debates and betray our real personal and collective security."

With that, Webb captures the essence of the civil libertarian position. But what makes her work thought-provoking even for the skeptic is the evidence that although the 9/11 attacks may have been avoidable, mass surveillance of the type now in place would not have helped stop them.

Traditional gumshoe intelligence work, she points out, had already targeted several of the 9/11 perpetrators as potential threats long before the event and there was evidence that they were planning some atrocity with an airplane. The U.S. intelligence community did not see the significance of the information they had and the Bush administration did nothing to heighten security when they were told.

She writes: "If U.S. agencies could not see the wood for the trees when they had specific information about a specific kind of threat and specific individuals, would it have helped them to sift through information on the lives of millions of people?"

Webb was inspired to write this book by the plight of Maher Arar and his wife Monia after attending a small Parliament Hill vigil in February 2003, before his disappearance, became a cause celebre.

"I couldn't quite explain why I had come," she writes. "Dragging my kids out to political rallies just wasn't something that I usually did. Perhaps I was attuned to Monia's story because at the time I was working on border issues at my job. But more than anything else, I was there as a mother -- one who had listened to another mother's story unfold on the radio over the previous five months and tried to answer my own kids' curious questions."

The mass of white middle-class Canadians who rest easy because they feel mass electronic surveillance, and increasingly sophisticated surveillance equipment, is about targeting minorities, should think again, cautions Webb.

"In the wired world of the 21st century," she writes, "most people in the developed world, and many in the developing world, have their 'wires' permanently plugged in. The information we leave behind creates an ever-accumulating, virtual picture of us, which state agents can call up to scrutinize again and again."

By which she means most transactions we perform with credit cards and debit cards and when we travel or make loan applications. To name but a few.

"These systems are indiscriminate and aren't interested in accuracy. The technologies, like biometrics and data mining, are highly flawed technologies -- they don't work. But more than that they undermine our democratic rights and institutions and as we know from the Maher Arar case, these are what protect us collectively and individually. They are thereal bulwarks against threats from irresponsible governments."

The Book

Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World.

By Maureen Webb

City Lights, $19.76.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2007

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