One Last Thing


The purposeful monitoring of activities and actions of persons or things of specified interest has been with us from cavemen watching neighbouring tribes to Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride to chain smoking cops with binoculars on stakeout. What’s changed, and always will change, are the tactics, technologies and targets the ‘good guys’ use in the identified service of the common good. What’s also changed is the sophistication of the ‘bad guy’s’ wilful surveillance of the ‘good guys’ or what’s known in criminal and security circles as counter surveillance.

Although I’m sure that someone somewhere concluded that the invention of the telescope was a game changer for surveillance and the right for citizens to be free from it, the sheer explosion of technologies deriving from ever evolving mechanized computing capacity truly has created a capacity… and a vulnerability… that is unprecedented. Quite simply, the state (and the bad guys) now has the ability to remotely, and with pre-set analytical specification, monitor, record, report, and share the most minute details of the activities, movements, and communications of persons. How and why they choose to do so and who gets to decide how, when, where and for what purpose they are authorized to do so, is a profound societal question we ignore at our peril. While the Twitter Generation may not yet appreciate it, there is a direct link between privacy and liberty.

With that overarching caution in mind, it is entirely appropriate to use these modern technologies to confront and thwart those persons who threaten our safety and security. This is not to say that all surveillance technologies should be viewed equally. The RFID surveillance technology favoured by the Americans, for example, may have its value but it is significantly susceptible to inappropriate use through tracking of persons beyond the intended identification purpose.

Canada’s track record of the purposeful, targeted use of modern surveillance technologies suggests that bureaucratic comfort levels are only sloooowly moving beyond telescope deployment. This lethargy isn’t explainable because of a lack of awareness. Indeed, in a blunt acknowledgement of the need for action, RCMP Commissioner Elliott responded to the pointed question from border-savvy MP Gord Brown about “…how (he) would describe the marine border surveillance capacity currently on the Great Lakes and along the St. Lawrence River?” by saying: “My forthright response is one word, and that is, it’s inadequate.”

When CBSA officials "explain" that deportees like Edmund Esemo, who's been deported eight times from Canada for ciminality and hundreds like him can't be detected sneaking back into Canada (through the front door) it's an admission of failure.

That admission was made on 8 February 2008, yet Canada has still not deployed the available automated analytical marine surveillance technology that can recognize, track and provide real time information for interdiction and intelligence purposes. Could it be that our decision to not seek the surveillance information is because we still don’t have a border interdiction capacity?

The bureaucratic mantra of “no news is good news” comes to mind.

The same bewildering inaction can be seen in our failure to deploy face recognition biometrics at ports of entry or for our name-based No Fly list – which was obsolete on the day it was implemented. When CBSA officials “explain” that deportees like Edmund Ezemo, who’s been deported eight times from Canada for criminality, and hundreds like him, can’t be detected sneaking back into Canada (through the front door), it’s an admission of failure. It’s no different when legions of repeat sex offenders, parolees, gangsters and spousal abusers somehow get ‘lost’ or escape their supervision and commit more crimes despite the availability of electronic monitoring with full GPS tracking capabilities.

On a non technology level, can someone explain why we don’t track and report crimes committed by persons on bail, conditional sentence, parole or subject to criminal deportation? That information is surely relevant to how we might change laws and policies so as to prevent crime by taking proactive measures to deny convicted criminals the opportunity to commit more crimes. It might also provide insight into exactly how well our justice system and those who supposedly run it are performing, which, in turn, might explain why this available data is not reported.

The use of surveillance technologies and techniques is at the core of safety and security strategies as never before. Making the right decisions for the right reasons and getting on with it is one imperative. Another is doing what we do with eyes wide open.          

Scott Newark is FrontLine Security’s Associate Editor.
© FrontLine Security 2009