Stop The Snooping


i wanna be cool too!
Oct 22, 2005
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British Columbia
18 Sep 2006

by Scott Taylor, Special to the Sun,
Municipalities Shouldn't Scoop Up Law-Abiding Citizens In Their Quest To Crack Down On Criminals

If some of our municipal politicians have their way, it won't be just Santa Claus preparing his annual list of who's naughty or nice. That chore will also become the responsibility of businesses, required by municipal bylaws, to pass along private and personal customer information to police.

Ostensibly, the purpose of such municipal bylaws -- or, as I like to refer to them, "snoop-and-scoop" bylaws -- is to gather personal information, which can then be used by police to identify potential criminal activity. But at what cost, I ask, to our privacy and fundamental legal rights?

My concern about snoop-and-scoop bylaws was triggered when I read, to my surprise, a recent headline in The Vancouver Sun. It announced that, under new legislation, municipalities can ask BC Hydro to disclose lists of customer addresses indicating excessive electrical consumption, one of the telltale signs of marijuana grow operations. But as I soon discovered in the recently released Report of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C., Local Governments and the Growth of Surveillance, some municipalities have for decades required certain businesses, such as pawnbrokers and scrap metal merchants, to disclose customer information to police.

What is concerning, however, is the rapidly expanding scope and magnitude of such snoop-and-scoop bylaws, and the potential for the misuse of personal information.

For example, while personal information may only record such basic details as name, address and description of the individual, as the report notes, "many bylaws go further and require collection of more detailed descriptive elements such as height, weight, race, gender, eye colour, date of birth, picture identification and serial numbers from identification cards. In some cases, identifying information of a vehicle used to transport goods brought to a store is required."

What's also worrisome is the fact that municipalities are not just targeting such high-profile activities as excessive hydro consumption, but also such innocuous and legal activities such as renting a private mail box or purchasing pepper spray.

The question is: Do municipalities even have the legal authority to enact bylaws which clearly relate to the monitoring and control of criminal activity, since criminal law is within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government?

In effect, municipalities are essentially engaging in the role of a quasi-police organization. However, only the police have the authority, skills and training to identify and arrest criminals. If the police suspect that a crime is being committed, they have recourse to the courts to request and obtain information, through judicial process, to facilitate a criminal investigation. Such legal processes ensure that the rights and interests of the accused are represented and protected, an invaluable and fundamental cornerstone of our free and democratic society.

But, if police are granted unlimited access to personal information without any such legal checks and balances, I fear any presumption of being innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is in great jeopardy.

Yet even if I can be convinced that municipalities do have the legal authority to enact snoop-and-scoop bylaws, I remain highly doubtful that the privacy of the personal information will be protected, or that it will actually be used for the intended purposes. As Canadians we have been exposed to a litany of horrendous examples of government corruption, waste, negligence and pure incompetence when dealing with taxpayer money. Considering that your own personal information is far more valuable, what confidence do you have that any government organization can guarantee the safekeeping of your identity?

As the privacy commissioner's report explains, "Moreover, the impact on the rights of individuals who are monitored, the vast majority of who are simply using a completely legal service or buying legal products for innocent reasons, is a matter of considerable concern. It is unlikely that individuals who deliver secondhand clothing for sale by a consignment shop would expect their personal information to wind up on a nationwide police database, accessible to police agencies across Canada. Nor would they expect that renting a private mailbox would result in their personal details being available in police information systems."

It's time to carefully reconsider our increasing reliance on snoop- and-scoop bylaws. They should only be used as a last resort when no other options are available, and only on a case-by-case basis for the purpose of facilitating a specific police investigation. Moreover, controls must be instituted to ensure that any personal information collected is used and disclosed only for the intended purpose.

Without proper measures to ensure privacy and protect legal rights, municipalities have no business snooping in the lives of law- abiding citizens.

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