Prof probes impact of post 9/11 surveillance

September 13, 2005

Immediately after the 9/11 Al-Qeada terrorist attacks, government officials in both the U.S. and Canada were quick to pass legislation to increase surveillance of their citizens. But now, four years later, as fear of further terrorist attacks has become less acute and suspicion of government leaders' motives has heightened, more and more people are starting question the increased invasion of their privacy, says Dr. Kevin Haggerty, director of the criminology program in the University of Alberta Department of Sociology.

"Right after 9/11 it was impossible for anyone to say no to anything that would purportedly increase security," said Haggerty, who recently co-authored a paper on the use of surveillance as response to terrorist threats, which was published in the Canadian Journal of Sociology.

Increasing the ability of lawmakers to monitor our Internet use, financial transactions, personal movements and cell phone use were just a few of the measures in the U.S. Patriot Act and the Canadian Public Safety Act that became law shortly after 9/11. But many of these measures had been proposed and rejected as unwarranted privacy invasions in previous years, Haggerty said.

The steep increase in surveillance infrastructure after 9/11 has been "intensive" and has "proceeded with little public debate or protest," he added. "But polling and censor numbers are showing us that people have lost some of their trust in authorities, and we are now looking more critically at the restrictions being placed on our civil liberties."

There are many reasons to question increased surveillance, Haggerty believes. For one, it is difficult to reverse the expansion of surveillance infrastructure once is has begun. Moreover, even if you trust the people doing the monitoring, we have repeatedly seen how information gathered for one purpose can be used for other more questionable purposes by other groups.

Also, much of the new surveillance often involves forms of racial profiling, "and this is, of course, offensive to those people subjected to the heightened scrutiny," said Haggerty, who has co-edited a book, The New Politics of Surveillance and Visibility, which will be published later this year.

Increased surveillance can also reduce our sense of privacy, which is "the cornerstone of a liberal democracy," he added. "Without a sense of privacy, we tend to self-censor and don't say what we really think--it's hard to quantify, but it's a huge loss."

Haggerty doesn't believe surveillance measures are without merit, but he does believe that "knowledge matters".

"The more we know about surveillance and its uses, the more we can be aware of how and why it can be used to manipulate us, and the more in control we can be of our lives and the choices we make."
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For further comment, Dr. Haggerty can be reached at 780-492-3297 or kevin.haggerty@ualberta.ca.

University of Alberta

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