Canada Will Spy on People, Politely

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If you're being spied on visually, press 1; if you're being spied on audio-visually, press 2.

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Here is a Canadian initiative: Airports and border crossings are being fitted with cameras and microphones that can eavesdrop on travelers' conversations. The Canadian Border Services Agency announced the installations this weekend, noting that audio-video monitoring and recording are already in place at "unidentified CBSA sites" at airports and border points of entry across the country. The new initiative will be an extension of that. The point will be, as it always is, to enhance "border integrity, infrastructure and asset security and health and safety."

The point will also be, however, to serve as a preemptive deterrent to drug smugglers and other criminals. A 2008 report identified at least 58 organized crime groups as "active" at major airports, corrupting airport employees and/or placing people in airport jobs -- from which they can easily move narcotics and other contraband to and from waiting airplanes.

The union representing some 45 employees at Ottawa's airport isn't pleased about the new plan, since workers' conversations will be recorded along with the criminals'. For the most part, though, the initiative is standard government-surveillance fare, done in the name of crime prevention, national security, and, in general, the interests of those being spied on. And the Canadian government's focus on the relatively public spaces of the airport and checkpoint make it positively tame compared to the massive citizen surveillance scheme the U.K. unveiled last week.

What makes this particular approach noteworthy, however, is how politely it plans to surveil. At Ottawa's airport, the Ottawa Citizen reports, signs will be posted referring passersby to a "privacy notice" -- which will, in turn, be available on the CBSA website. You can load up the site and learn exactly how -- and why -- the government is watching you. The CBSA will also provide a help line "explaining how the recordings will be used, stored, disclosed, and retained." I'm imagining some kind of Moviefone-esque situation: If you're being spied on by video, press 1; if you're being spied on by audio, press 2. To speak to an operator, press 0.

On the one hand, it's hard to imagine such a help line being anything other than frustrating in the best case and infuriating in the worst. Help lines are not known for their glowing customer service -- and whether this particular Canadian initiative will prove worthwhile is an open question. On the other hand, though, the spirit is right: More government transparency is, as a general rule, a good thing. Particularly when the government in question is monitoring its citizens and those of other countries. Most of us accept that surveillance is an unavoidable feature of contemporary life. What we don't accept is opacity and apathy among the people who are doing the surveilling. In spying as in anything -- seriously -- a little politeness can go a long way. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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