It’s a story that just keeps growing — and it’s an important example of what happens when governments let practical concerns erode fundamental rules.
That’s especially the case as we see more and more examples in this country of governments and political parties using ends to justify their means.
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the U.S. government changed critical rules about the rights their citizens have to privacy — particularly, electronic privacy, as the disclosures by National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden have made abundantly clear.
In an effort to catch potential terrorists, the NSA gained the technological ability — and, apparently, the permission of government overseers — to sample emails leaving and entering the United States. The idea was that the wholesale bugging of electronic transmissions was justifiable, because it had the potential to stop terrorist attacks. Sacrificing freedom from government intrusion was supposed to be a necessary means.
But, as often happens, eroding one part of an absolute right — the right to personal privacy — was only the beginning to a much larger scale abuse of that technology.
Monday, it was revealed by a Brazilian news agency that the NSA used its powerful email, phone call and text scanning technology to eavesdrop on two notable politicians who could hardly be described as terrorists — Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Brazilian Sen. Ricardo Ferraco summed it up pretty succinctly at a press conference in Brasilia: “I feel a mixture of amazement and indignation. It seems like there are no limits. When the phone of the president of the republic is monitored, it’s hard to imagine what else might be happening,” Ferraco said. “It’s unacceptable that in a country like ours, where there is absolutely no climate of terrorism, that there is this type of spying.”
For the Mexican leader, the information obtained by the NSA apparently contained detailed discussions of the names of politicians being considered for government positions.
Why is it important here? Perhaps because Canadian security services have been identified as having helped the NSA with past surveillance efforts that were also outside the realm of hunting for terrorists — for example, co-operating with obtaining text messages between leaders at a G20 conference — and also because governments in this country, both provincial and federal, have shown a belief that reaching a political end can justify any number of questionable means. Think deliberate election overspending and abuse, federal Liberal Adscam contracts, deceptive robocalls to mislead voters and any number of other strategies that, by any standard, cross basic ethical lines.
When basic rights to things like privacy and fair and free elections are treated like poker chips, we all lose. Maybe not right away, but eventually. Once those lines are crossed, it’s merely a matter of time before basic freedoms fall to the death of a thousand ethical cuts.