"No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" So went one of Monty Python's funniest sketches. But there is one potential, much more modern type of inquisition looming on the horizon. And it's no laughing matter.
It is the possible creation by the federal government of a mandatory national identification card that would include biometric features such as fingerprints or eyescans. According to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Denis Coderre, this card would enhance national security as well as curtail identity theft.
This idea is a product of the post-Sept. 11 era. Canada is one of a number of Western countries that are studying the adoption of this new type of surveillance technology. Whether in Europe or here, critics are denouncing what they see as caving in to American pressure and paranoia regarding real or imagined threats of terrorist attacks.
Although Jean Chrétien's cabinet is said to be split on the matter - what else is new these days - Coderre's department is doing its darnedest to get this show on the road. Right in the middle of summer, it released a poll conducted in June by Pollara that - surprise, surprise - shows seven out of 10 Canadians agree with the creation of a biometrics card. So, the spin goes, Canadians are willing to put security ahead of fundamental rights.
(This poll, by the way, was conducted with a small sampling per province - only 300 in Quebec - with a whopping margin of error of 5.7 per cent. More importantly, it asked a question on a topic few people are informed about.)
A Commons committee is studying the matter and will make its recommendations. In October, the government will hold a special two-day national forum on the subject where homegrown and international experts will be invited to speak. And if there's anything we know about here in Quebec, it is how forums and summits can serve to manufacture consent on a controversial question.
Which raises this question for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien: Why adopt an independent position from the United States on the war in Iraq and look as if you are ready to give in on something as crucial as the adoption of a biometrics ID card that could endanger basic freedoms?
This type of surveillance technology has the very real potential of violating privacy rights and restricting freedom of expression, thought and association. Because biometric cards can also be transmitters, they can even allow a government or the police to know exactly where a card owner is and who he's meeting with. This is no longer science fiction. With time, these technologies will become more and more sophisticated, and the danger to freedoms will grow.
Nowhere is this easier to understand than in China, where this technology is being actively developed, not out of subservience to the U.S., but out of a will to further restrict its citizens at a time when the country is widening its contacts with the West for economic purposes.
The project is called the Golden Shield - also dubbed the Chinese Big Brother by human rights advocates. It's aim is to create a gigantic online data base to build a country-wide, centralized surveillance network that would incorporate the digital recognition of voices and faces, closed-circuit television, biometric ID cards, credit files and various Internet surveillance technologies.
The Chinese Ministry of Public Security is responsible for this project, and it needs the help of Western firms to bring it to fruition. Along with the FBI, a number of Western companies, even Canadian firms such as telecommunications giant Nortel Networks, are contributing to this project.
Now, China is not a democratic country. It's a single-party regime that jails its dissidents. So when critics point to the potential dangers of biometric cards taking us down the slippery slope of a police state where the surveillance of citizens is rendered easier than ever before, we would be wise to ponder the Chinese example.
And so would Denis Coderre, who actually said biometrics would put us "one step ahead." One step ahead of whom, of what? Is watching citizens, including their whereabouts and contacts, a step forward? And does the minister truly believe, as he said, that Canadians would be protected by the "proper legal framework" of the Charter of Rights? As if judges could protect us from abusive use by the government or the police of any personal information provided by these cards.
Sept. 11, 2001, marked our entry into a new world, where terrorists are winning by making us think of sacrificing basic freedoms out of fear and paranoia.
If this is a new world, let us at least not turn it it into a Brave New World.
Big Brother Coderre wants to watch
This type of surveillance has the real potential of violating privacy rights, and restricting freedom of expression and thought.