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Column: Concerns about privacy go way too far

These days a lot of people profess to have what are called “privacy concerns.” So have I: I think there are too many of them. I suppose my attitude has something to do with my chosen craft.

These days a lot of people profess to have what are called “privacy concerns.” So have I: I think there are too many of them.

I suppose my attitude has something to do with my chosen craft. As I reporter, I spent a lot of time invading the privacy of bureaucrats and politicians. It was my cheek to believe that transparency and openness in government and politics, not privateering and secrecy, was in the public interest. It’s a cheek I haven’t turned even yet.

In B.C., the commissar in charge of enforcing privacy laws, Elizabeth Denham, is also in charge of enforcing freedom-of-information laws. She is, therefore, a Janus looking both ways who, consequently, is likely to see very little.

Nevertheless, she’s flexing her legislated privacy muscle these days.

She says police may take pictures of vehicle licence plates but if the drivers aren’t suspected of having committed a “traffic-related” offence, images should automatically deleted.

Now, I don’t know if these cameras, distributed to police forces by the RCMP, can be trusted to tell if a driver is following too close or talking on her hand-held device, or whether he’s blind drunk.

But there are a lot of idiots behind the wheel on our roads, and I think the police should be given as much latitude as technology allows to catch them. Their due diligence shouldn’t be compromised by the need to rush the destruction of what might be useful evidence.

I also think licence-plate numbers should be used to lead to miscreants in general. Yet Denham’s statute as she determines it says that the numbers shouldn’t be used to track down people wanted for things like robbing banks, jumping bail, associating with known criminals, failing to stoop and scoop or jaywalking.

Victoria’s police board, sensibly, has refused to dissuade Chief Constable Jamie Graham from snooping at our taillights until further notice. Oddly though, the board had to go behind closed doors to make a decision in private that displays a healthy resistance to runaway privacy.

Victoria lawyer Michael Mulligan pointed out in a commentary in Thursday’s Times Colonist that the Bar Watch program designed to keep objectionable patrons out of bars has allowed police to store recorded information on every customer in case it might come useful in tracking miscreants in future. He thinks this misguided tool should be taken from police as well.

Last September, seven Ministry of Health employees were fired or suspended over what was described as a leak of confidential medical information. What the information was or what harm its release may have done is still a mystery — at least to me.

But, absurdly, it led to the suspension of Alzheimer’s research contracts worth $4 million at the University of Victoria and the University of B.C. Researchers, apparently, must forget that the objects of their research are people. Their privacy must be preserved.

Mulligan says that law enforcement must be balanced “with our desire for privacy.” It seems to me, though, that the balance is tilting alarmingly in both directions.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is trying to pilot through Parliament a bill to make it easier for police, and possibly private security firms, to acquire information on Internet, email and social media users without their knowledge.

This kind of officially sanctioned sneakiness I find far more objectionable than cops scanning pictures of licence plates and bar patrons to serve and protect us.

I resent the implication in this kind of omnibus snooping that everyone is a potential wrongdoer. At the same time, I resent the assumption in our privacy laws that I, like everyone else, has something to hide.

I resent the assumption that I’m so shy or ashamed of my condition in life, my achievements and my failures and whether I shop at Tiffany or Walmart, that I don’t want anyone to know about it.

I don’t want “our desire for privacy” to distort far more important values and priorities that we share as citizens. We who walk the streets of our global village with our faces hanging out, and tweet about ourselves to anyone who’ll listen, surely can’t claim a right to anonymity.