Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Security's slope is slippery

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Why is it that so few of our heroes of popular culture are on the side of civil liberties? From Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry to Keifer Sutherland's Jack Bauer on the paranoid television show 24, the heroes ignore the law and proceed with the belief that might is right.

Jack Bauer became the popular embodiment of the post-9/11 feeling in the United States that, in the fight against terror, civil liberties could take a back seat. The Bush administration passed the Patriot Act to hold suspects without trial, shipped people to countries where they could be tortured and opened the notorious Guantanamo prison camp for captives they wanted out of the way and didn't know what else to do with.

President Barack Obama campaigned on a pledge to end all that. He was going to close Guantanamo, (a pledge still not achieved) strengthen protections for privacy and hold government accountable when it stepped over the line.

Now Obama, like presidents before him, is reversing himself. The Obama administration, like the governments of India and the Middle East, wants access to the encrypted signals that make the BlackBerry smartphones built by the Canadian company Research in Motion so beloved of business.

Christopher Calabrese, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, says the Obama administration's attempt to seek wide new powers to intercept digital communications will make the Internet "wiretap-ready."

The U.S., like most western governments including Canada, already has sweeping powers to eavesdrop on voice communications. Authorities may need judicial approval for many wiretaps, but most western governments have highly sophisticated listening devices to tap into conversations that might reveal threats to national security.

The danger now is that crooks and terrorists may be hiding their communications behind the encryption that BlackBerry and others provide.

You can imagine the conversation in the Oval Office. A high-ranking official from the FBI tells the president about all the threats that have been prevented by picking up chatter on phones, cell-phones and unencrypted email. The official then presents a graph of how this information is declining and perhaps an incident or two that law enforcement didn't know in advance.

What's a president to do? Put the nation at risk or demand that the keys to encrypted information be handed to government so that it can spy on us?

The civil libertarian view of this is that tactics that let the government know our every move are open to huge abuse and threaten the very democratic free and open society we value.

How is it, then, that almost every cop show and feature film has heroes who take the law into their own hands? Even in the tepid new procedural Blue Bloods, a police officer rescues an abducted girl by torturing the suspect.

Occasionally, the dangers of the "ends justify the means" philosophy are highlighted as rogue elements run wild within government security agencies. This is the background plot in the Bourne movies and in the trio of blockbuster novels by the Swedish writer Stieg Larsson. Bourne fires first and asks questions later and Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of the Larsson novels, hacks into secret information to win the day.

In popular culture, when the chips are down and information is needed, strong-arm tactics and a disregard for the rights of the individual win every time.

There is an implicit ambivalence in the way television and film have heroes riding roughshod over our rights. That reflects our ambivalence. It is easier for an opposition to call for the protection of civil liberties than it is for those in power to practise it. The realities of office are that, when people are at risk, security will tend to trump civil liberties. In times of war, civil liberties go out the window.

Our heroes, then, are, like Obama, those to whom the realities of security are urgent. We want the little girl rescued and the villains exposed. With government, we need the terrorists arrested, the terror plot stopped. Security is seductive, civil liberties less so. Security is only worth it, though, if it serves the society we want, and that's why legislatures should be ever-mindful of the liberties governments seek to curtail.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 30, 2010 A13

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