Monthly Archives: January 2008

Canada’s special relationship

What are friends for, if not to politely ignore the fact that you’ve become an alcoholic and started beating your children? In such a spirit, Canada proved itself once again a faithful and utterly harmless pal of the United States yesterday when our government fell all over itself to retract a “torture awareness” manual given to its diplomats which listed the United States and Israel as states where prisoners are at risk of torture. Declared foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier, “It contains a list that wrongly includes some of our closest allies. I have directed that the manual be reviewed and rewritten.” Even Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae, after admitting that torture might indeed be “a live question” in American politics, finally threw his support behind the United States: “The idea that you would equate the government of the United States with the government of Iran with respect to the treatment of prisoners is a little hard to fathom,” he told the Canadian Press.

The reason why our government wrote such a manual in the first place? Because in 2002 the United States arrested and shipped an innocent Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, off to Syria to be tortured for ten months. According to CTV, it was felt during the inquiry into Arar’s case that Canadian diplomats should be taught to notice signs that prisoners had been tortured, as well to be made aware of countries in which such signs were more likely to appear. Quite rightly, the United States was placed on this list. But now we are expected to accept the Canadian government’s declaration that the United States — despite all of the evidence, all of the memos, despite even the Bush administration’s own clear intention that it be allowed to waterboard and otherwise abuse prisoners — is not such a country.

If friendship means the willingness to allow a powerful neighbouring country to take your people, torture them, hand them back to you grudgingly without apology (or simply detain them indefinitely), and then expect you to pretend that such things do not happen, well then, we are fast friends indeed. Of course, in international politics, we call such a situation “Finlandization”. In prison they’ve got another term for this kind of friendship, and it’s not a polite one.

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Goodbye to the Good Death

This Republic of Suffering 

Worth reading this winter: This Republic of Suffering (Knopf, 342pp) Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust’s study of the changing nature of death at the time of the U.S. Civil War, and the ways in which such changes in turn helped to transform Americans’ relationship with their government. A graf from my San Francisco Chronicle review:

The displacement of death from its natural family context worked a strange social and civic alchemy. Average citizens who had never known the deceased began to show up at Confederate funerals; “the emergence of this impersonal connection with the dead, one independent of any direct ties of kin or friendship, was a critical evolution in the understanding of war’s carnage,” writes Faust. A soldier’s death was no longer solely a private tragedy, and the dead no longer belonged exclusively to their families. They had become the nation’s dead, too.

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A MAD, MAD future

Absolute Tower, by MAD

I’m looking forward to seeing this building in person. Scheduled for completion in 2010, the 50-story Absolute Tower will be located in the condo-choked heart of my home, um, sprawl of Mississauga, Ontario, and promises to nudge the city in a far more interesting visual direction. The building was designed by Beijing-based MAD (an abbreviation of Ma Design, after its founding architect Yansong Ma), a studio that hews to a philosophy of “futurism” – reflective, no doubt, of the firm’s active participation in developing China’s revolutionary urban aesthetic. “Here,” says Ma in an interview, “it is possible to do anything.”

Of course, by “futurism” I’m pretty sure MAD means to invoke the awestruck optimism of World’s Fairs and 1960s science fiction, rather than the early-twentieth-century anarcho-fascism of F.T. Marinetti. Yet in a way this new futurism may stand in relation to post-modernist architecture as the old futurism stood against neo-classicism, and the words of 1914’s Manifesto of Futurist Architecture (ostensibly written by Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia) thus do not seem entirely out of place in this day and age:

The decorative must be abolished. The problem of Futurist architecture must be resolved, not by continuing to pilfer from Chinese, Persian or Japanese photographs or fooling around with the rules of Vitruvius, but through flashes of genius and through scientific and technical expertise. Everything must be revolutionized. Roofs and underground spaces must be used; the importance of the façade must be diminished; issues of taste must be transplanted from the field of fussy moldings, finicky capitals and flimsy doorways to the broader concerns of bold groupings and masses, and large-scale disposition of planes. Let us make an end of monumental, funereal and commemorative architecture. Let us overturn monuments, pavements, arcades and flights of steps; let us sink the streets and squares; let us raise the level of the city.

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One less voice

France 24 

I wasn’t a terribly frequent visitor to France 24’s website, but as an English-language expression of the French view of the world, I thought it was a timely and useful alternative to the big media outlets of the “Anglosphere” like CNN and the BBC. Unfortunately, it appears that French President Nicolas Sarkozy does not feel the same way, since he announced on Tuesday that he would be cancelling the year-old channel. “With taxpayers’ money, I am not prepared to broadcast a channel that does not speak French,” he told the media.

What a pity.

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Canada’s not-nearly-as-bad-as-the-U.S. surveillance society

2007 privacy rankings - map 

 2007 Privacy rankings - legend

The map and legend shown above are from Privacy International’s latest report on the state of surveillance and privacy protection in 47 countries. As Scott Horton has pointed out, the United States now ranks with Russia and China (along with camera-on-every-corner Britain) as “endemic surveillance societies”. Canada, by greyish contrast, ranks below “adequate” in its privacy protections, but is thankfully three colour bars above the U.S. level — though as rumours have it, the Canadian government doesn’t have to violate its citizen’s privacy rights directly if it can ask U.S. intelligence to provide the required information via its own monitoring of Canadian communications. The report helpfully provides highlights for each of the countries in the study, so here’s how Canada and the U.S. compare (note that some bullet points are more important than others):

CANADA

  • Privacy not mentioned in Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but courts have recognised the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy
  • Statutory rules at the federal level (public and private sectors) and provincial laws apply to sectors and governments
  • Federal commission is widely recognised as lacking in powers such as order-marking powers, and ability to regulate trans-border data flows
  • Variety of provincial privacy commissioners have made privacy-enhancing decisions and taken cases through the courts over the past year (particularly Ontario)
  • Court orders required for interception and there is no reasonable alternative method of investigation
  • Video surveillance is spreading despite guidelines from privacy commissioners
  • Highly controversial no-fly list, lacking legal mandate
  • Continues to threaten new policy on online surveillance
  • Increased calls for biometric documents to cater for U.S. pressure, while plans are still unclear for biometric passports

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

  • No right to privacy in constitution, though search and seizure protections exist in 4th Amendment; case law on government searches has considered new technology
  • No comprehensive privacy law, many sectoral laws; though tort of privacy
  • FTC continues to give inadequate attention to privacy issues, though issued self-regulating privacy guidelines on advertising in 2007
  • State-level data breach legislation has proven to be useful in identifying faults in security
  • REAL-ID and biometric identification programs continue to spread without adequate oversight, research, and funding structures
  • Extensive data-sharing programs across federal government and with private sector
  • Spreading use of CCTV
  • Congress approved presidential program of spying on foreign communications over U.S. networks, e.g. Gmail, Hotmail, etc.; and now considering immunity for telephone companies, while government claims secrecy, thus barring any legal action
  • No data retention law as yet, but equally no data protection law
  • World leading in border surveillance, mandating trans-border data flows
  • Weak protections of financial and medical privacy; plans spread for ‘rings of steel’ around cities to monitor movements of individuals
  • Democratic safeguards tend to be strong but new Congress and political dynamics show that immigration and terrorism continue to leave politicians scared and without principle
  • Lack of action on data breach legislation on the federal level while REAL-ID is still compelled upon states has shown that states can make informed decisions
  • Recent news regarding FBI biometric database raises particular concerns as this could lead to the largest database of biometrics around the world that is not protected by strong privacy law

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