Security and civil liberties must be seen as equal pillars as we discuss our safety in the digital age.

The Toronto Star and the Canadian Broadcast Corporation recently released a series that highlighted the serious challenges facing our national, provincial and local police agencies in trying to investigate crimes enabled by digital connectivity, or those that occur almost wholly online.

The series provided Canadians with an unprecedented look at the growing challenges faced by the RCMP, including the sad reality of the growth in child sexual abuse enabled by the anonymity of the Internet. It also highlighted the numerous digital roadblocks faced by law enforcement agencies investigating child exploitation, terrorism, and other crimes such as online fraud and bullying.

Unfortunately, much of the discourse in the series pitted the police, charged with upholding the laws of our land and keeping citizens safe, against civil liberties activists, concerned with the privacy implications of technology and legislation that would enable law enforcement to capture and share citizen’s data.

The civil liberties argument against providing police with the technological and the regulatory powers to collect and share citizens’ private data is not misguided. Former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden alleged that security and police organizations around the world misused technologies and violated citizens’ civil liberties. This has created distrust in citizens and frustration in the police agencies that are struggling to perform their societal role in the digital age.

The polarizing nature of this debate is not helpful, as it leaves citizens trying to reconcile what is seems to be an intractable dichotomy: either they accept that their civil liberties, specifically their privacy, will be trampled in exchange for their security, or they accept what is presented as an absolute guarantee of their privacy by modern technologies, which, given the global and virtual nature of crime today, are nevertheless placing citizens’ security at risk.

The reality is, there is no absolute right to privacy in a liberal-democratic society. We cede portions of our civil liberties for our own protection and to uphold a common good in the form of laws and judicial orders.

We as a society would not tolerate an individual building impenetrable physical walls around a home where children were known to be sexually exploited. However, we are inadvertently doing this, virtually, as we accept impenetrable digital encryption on our smartphones and the social media we commonly use, which are also being used by those creating and disseminating child sexual abuse images and videos.

While our police and national security agencies struggle to get the evidence they require to investigate certain crimes that have proliferated in the digital age, organizations such as Internet providers and social media companies have unprecedented access to information generated on their platforms, the implications of which the consumer often does not fully understand.

This is not to suggest that police agencies should expect citizens to simply accept constant surveillance.  There is need for a reset on this debate in Canada and around the world.  Our leaders — in government, police agencies, civil liberties organizations and the technology industry — must show leadership and forge a new path. This new path must ensure that a commitment to securing citizens in the digital age, and protection of our civil liberties — specifically our privacy — are equal pillars.  The balance of these two pillars must be animated in our laws and the technologies used by our police and security agencies.

Striking this balance isn’t going to be achieved at a one-day conference. These are highly technical and complex issues that are constantly evolving. It will require that all stakeholders pay regular attention to maintaining what will be, at best, a fragile equilibrium.

Technology is not to blame for the security and civil liberties challenges we face today, as many of the online products we use were not purpose-built to secure vulnerable populations from online crime. Nor were the tools used by police agencies developed to respect civil liberties.

Many leaders in the technology industry have picked sides in this debate and helped entrench the dichotomy. Those positions will become less and less palatable to citizen consumers, as we begin to be more aware of the security and privacy issues in the digital age.

If leaders from government, police agencies, technology companies and civil liberties organizations are able to come together and have regular, open and meaningful dialogue, we may just find there is a great opportunity for Canada to pave a new way and see economic benefit. As Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale recently said in a speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade, “If we have justifiable confidence in the security of our information systems we can thrive and excel in this digital age.  But more than that — we can sell our skill and confidence to the rest of the world where there’s a huge appetite and market available.”

Technological innovation at its best enables us to build the world we desire for ourselves and future generations.  If we truly want our security, the security of vulnerable populations around us and our civil liberties — specifically our privacy — to be respected, we as a society must call for a rethink of the laws governing these issues and for investment in the technologies that law enforcement and security agencies require to reconcile this dichotomy.

Photo: Titima Ongkantong/

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