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Globe editorial: Security vs. privacy: Technology changes, rights don’t

The stakes are considerable, which is why the folks who run the national security apparatus have quietly and not-so-quietly been laying down markers as Ottawa reviews their powers. The argument goes they need more tools, and more leeway, to do their important work.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Canada's federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien and his provincial and territorial counterparts are sounding a much-needed note of caution in a joint brief submitted as part of the ongoing security review.

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"It is important that we not forget the lessons of history. One of these lessons is that once conferred, new state powers are rarely relinquished," the document reads.

That's true, as is the fact the expansion of state powers of surveillance over the past 15 years has resulted in "too many cases of inappropriate and sometimes illegal conduct by state officials," including violations of privacy and other civil rights.

If Bill C-51, the former Conservative government's anti-terrorism legislation, was an overreach, the attempt to fix it ought not to make things worse.

Mr. Therrien and his colleagues rightly raise the alarm over Ottawa's apparent willingness to widen, rather than restrict, things like the collection of metadata. They argue that authorizations to gather metadata ought to meet elevated standards and require judicial, not merely administrative, sign-off. They're right.

The privacy commissioners' submission also points out that increased monitoring of online activities has a "potential chilling effect" that could defeat the purpose of having more powerful snooping tools; when people think they're being watched, they go further underground. We could end up diminishing the freedom of many, without increasing security against the violent few. It's an important consideration in online anti-radicalization efforts.

Similarly, the brief warns against overly broad measures seeking to circumvent encryption technology and grant the state access to secured devices. Any expansion of security agency powers must be "demonstrated to be necessary, not merely useful or convenient, and proportionate." Exactly right.

Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale says he'll pay close attention to the brief; he also repeated that security measures and safeguards on fundamental rights are "equally important."

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We would put it even more strongly. Canadian law has a long history of striking a balance between security and privacy – but in striking that balance, our constitution has generally adopted a strong presumption in favour of the rights of the individual citizen against the needs of the state. Technology changes; fundamental rights don't.

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