OPINION: A public take on privacy

Sarnia council agreed recently to buy new software to improve emergency services at Sarnia Police headquarters.

Actually, it had little choice. Federal regulators have mandated 911 providers accommodate text messaging and other enhanced services. And who would argue against a better emergency system?

There is, however, another side. The $86,000 software upgrade will, for the first time, also give city police the ability to zero in on the location of anyone making a cell phone call.

Likewise, Ontario is installing new vehicle detection technology at the Blue Water Bridge. The goal is to estimate wait times at the border and relay that information to travellers on overhead highway signs and online.

Anyone who’s ever been stuck in a stalled line at the bridge in need of a bathroom break knows that’s a good thing.

But, as The Journal first reported, this new system weaves its magic by reading the Media Access Control address in every Bluetooth device.

To privacy advocates reeling from personal video drones, Ottawa’s overreaching cyber-bullying bill, and our security agency using airport Wi-Fi to spy on thousands of Canadian travellers, it’s another milestone on the road to a police state.

Sure, it’s hard to imagine the Ministry of Transportation using your whereabouts on Highway 402 for a nefarious purpose. But there is something spooky about the state following the movements of your car without you knowing it.

What these technological advances have in common is the potential risk posed to personal privacy, a basic freedom that underlies every liberal democratic society. The equipment provides greater efficiency, but at an incremental cost yet to be fully perceived or calculated.

Video surveillance cameras now cover sizable areas of Sarnia where people congregate. Whether you shop in a store, stroll downtown or boat on the St. Clair River, your actions are recorded on tape.

Such an invasion of privacy would have been unthinkable a generation ago, but is now blithely accepted in the name of safety.

“Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security,” Benjamin Franklin once famously said. But the American inventor and statesman couldn’t have envisioned the rise of Boko Haram and Internet revenge porn.

Privacy is essential to the dignity of the individual. For some, that means a backyard fence, for others a sophisticated firewall on cyber-spying.

But with each advance, people have the right know when they are being watched, and when they are truly alone.

– George Mathewson