Nineteen Eighty-Four Revisited?

Many years ago I read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. For those who have not read the book it is a piece of literary political and science-fiction. 1984 is a classic novel. Many of its terms and concepts, such as Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, newspeak have become contemporary vernacular since its publication in 1949. Moreover, Nineteen Eighty-Four popularized the adjective Orwellian, which refers to official deception, secret surveillance, and manipulation of the past in service to a totalitarian or manipulative political agenda.

I have to say the book had quite an influence on me and since reading it I have always been on the lookout for government wanting to invade the privacy of its citizens. There is much to be worried about as governments go on their merry way collecting personal information on its citizens on a daily basis.

Recently our government in Ottawa has introduced legislation demanding the authority to collect IP addresses, email addresses, mobile phone numbers and other identifying information on anyone who interests them without a warrant. Wow hard to believe but there it is.

What is more surprising is this legislation is coming from the same government that “whipped up moral panic” over the gun registry and the long-form census? In each case, they told us our right to privacy was threatened by intrusions from the state. So let’s see government has no business knowing how many rooms you have in your house – but if the government wants access to your online activities, no problem go right ahead and have fun. Conservative voters who opposed the federal long-gun registry and the mandatory long-form census stated that these are examples of the state intruding in the lives of citizens in search of information it had no right to demand. Applying that same principle, should the state be allowed to have new powers to know who we are on the web – in effect, to register our online identities – without a judicial warrant or even our knowledge or consent?

The new legislation, commonly referred to as the lawful access bill, would not give the government the power to track your movements, either online or through your phone, without a warrant. But it would require telecom companies to give up identifying information on clients if asked by the police.

None of us want to handicap police in their efforts to track those who would defraud us, harm children or plot acts of terror which is the bill’s intent. But we must also be wary of granting government powers that could restrict the sovereignty of citizens.

“It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself–anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face…; was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime…”
– George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 5


Research Has Become a Dirty Word: Part Two

When I wrote my blog Research has become a “Dirty Word” in the Federal Government , I had no idea how far the government would go in dismissing  valuable research to help guide important government decision making.  Well the recent news about the long –form census being canceled threw me for a loop. When I first heard the news that government would oppose the mandatory long-form census, I thought it was a rumour, or worse a joke or prank but no this is really happening.

Based on news reports, last fall the government decided that they would oppose the mandatory long-form census. Since then, nothing has changed their mind. This policy is being denounced by almost every leading institution and commentator in Canada. See Maclean’s for list

Tabethy Southey in her column: Long-form census? Nah, we’ll ask Paul the octopus points out the  Industry Minister  explained that they can compensate for the fact that certain demographic groups are likely to forego completing the long-form census because “statisticians can ensure validity” with a “larger sample size.” ( i.e done voluntarily).

This isn’t the case. Simply put, no matter how broad a sample size statisticians use, the fact that some groups are likely to be underrepresented will mean that the database will be faulty.

You wonder why this decision was made. (the privacy argument is quite weak- the government knows there are provisions in the legislation preventing answers from being linked to the person giving them. They also know that neither the privacy commissioner nor the committee that crossed the country studying what should be in the census heard complaints about long-form privacy concerns. Canada’s privacy watchdog has received only three complaints about the census in the last decade). Perhaps it has more to do with how this government wants to develop policy.Without detailed data it will be easier to promote and defend public policies that appeal to conclusions based on personal opinions. Politicians seldom want to let the facts get in the way of their opinions based on what their constituents tell them at their local Tim Horton’s. In other words we have government who would rather not be confused by the facts.  But is this the way to run a government?  It means the country’s course will be shaped more by assumption and emotion than by proof and reason.

As Jim Travers points out , credible information is the starting point for sound decisions. Municipal, provincial and federal planners rely on the census for that information, as do businesses, academics and ordinary folks curious about their changing world.

For example, when political parties, including the party in power, want to get elected they make a great deal of use of the census long form demographic results in tailoring their campaigns and advertising.

Let’s face many people happily divulge large amounts of information on the comments card at a chain restaurant, and provide their phone numbers; they give intimate details to dating sites. They provide tons of info on web sites and they have no idea that when they sign up for a card that gives them points or some type of membership they are giving corporations an incredible amount of personal information.

How about social media sites like Facebook? Any privacy issues there?

Without scientific information, parliamentarians fly blind when developing policies or approving legislation… I suspect they like this scenario.


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