Surrender your civil rights? There’s an app for that

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Canadians will co-operate to stop the spread of COVID-19. But that shouldn’t mean forgoing fundamental rights

By Doug Firby
Columnist
Troy Media

Governments are run by politicians and bureaucrats who think they can manage our affairs better than we can alone.

Sometimes they’re right, if you think about something like pooling our tax dollars to build roads we can all use or building a health-care system accessible to all.

But sometimes they’re wrong.

They’re particularly wrong when they begin to overreach and micromanage aspects of our lives that they don’t really need to.

The first Prime Minister Trudeau – Pierre Elliott – had it right when he declared a half century ago, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”

But with a pandemic not yet brought to heel, is there a place for the state in our parks? Or our smart phones?

I’m not so sure.

There are reports of hundreds of charges being laid across the country against people who don’t follow social distancing rules – with fines as big as $1,200. The cities include Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Regina, Calgary and even the little town of Cochrane in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains.

Neighbours have been known to rat out others on their street who in their view aren’t following the rules. Could there be some spiteful quarrel behind some of these reports?

This aggressive enforcement is happening even though the actual rules for social distancing are vague and confusing. Looking at some of the examples, I wonder why I haven’t been nabbed for standing in line outside my local Canadian Tire.

Even more troubling, however, is the introduction of a “tracing app” in Alberta. If you voluntarily install it on your phone, you will be contacted if you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 or if you’ve exposed others.

This ABTraceTogether uses your phone’s Bluetooth to keep an anonymous log of other app users you’ve been in close contact with, the provincial government states.

Is it just me, or is there not something absolutely chilling about such an initiative?

If I were to use this app, I will have not only invited the state into my bedroom, but also my bathroom, car and just about any other place my ever-present mobile phone travels with me. Can we really believe that the use of such data will be totally benign?

Of course, the state isn’t the first to seek such intrusion. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg figured out years ago how to get the Trojan horse through our privacy gates. Social media has shown us that people around the world are prepared to blithely surrender details of themselves, their lives and their friends in exchange for the buzz of seeing themselves on Facebook and Instagram.

In times of crisis, people seem excessively willing to put their trust in institutions. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, for example, not just the people of the United States but also many people around the world were convinced that the U.S. was justified in starting a war in Iraq to bring down Saddam Hussein.

History has shown how wrong-headed that strategy was. And yet, at the time, many of us trusted those leaders.

Today, we’re scared because the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the world. Many of us know someone who has been affected by it, or even died, and we’re ready to take whatever action we need to stop its spread.

Some of us are even prepared to put our civil rights on the shelf.

Such malleability of citizens makes this an even more dangerous time. Like the original income tax – which was billed as a temporary measure to fund the expenses of the First World War – the ability to install an app on your phone to track your contacts and activity is voluntary and temporary now, but one day could well be permanent and mandatory.

Canadians are willing to co-operate and take reasonable measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. Doing so, however, should not mean they have to forgo their fundamental rights – and especially the right not to have the state know your every move.

Let’s not allow our fear of the pandemic drive us to make decisions that insidiously erode human rights that our forebears fought so hard to gain.

Each of us needs to be aware that saying no to state intrusion isn’t a crime.

On the contrary, it’s the right thing to do.

Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.

© Troy Media