Suppose I hid in the bushes outside a neighbour's house, hoping to catch a glimpse of her disrobing.
I'd be what's commonly called a "peeping Tom." I could be, and probably should be, arrested.
Under the law, it makes no difference whether I do my spying from the bushes directly outside the bedroom, or set up a powerful telescope kilometres away. I don't even have to be there. I'm just as guilty if I set up a hidden camera.
So why is it legal for the state to do the same kind of surreptitious snooping?
Thanks to defector Edward Snowden, we know now the U.S. National Security Agency has been tapping the private communications of not only its own citizens, but those of other countries as well.
And a CBC investigation found documents proving that Communications Security Establishment Canada has actively collaborated with the NSA. During the 2010 G-20 economic summit in Toronto, the two agencies worked together to intercept the communications of visiting diplomats. In about 20 countries where Canada is more welcome than the U.S., CSEC even did NSA's dirty work - peering into the lives of individuals and corporations.
Voyeurism is considered a psychological disorder where the victim is usually unaware of being observed.
In the U.S., the laws against voyeurism (quoting Wikipedia) specifically refer to "surreptitious surveillance without consent, and unlawful recordings â€¦ involving places and times when a person has a reasonable expectation of privacyâ€¦"
Voyeurism sounds to me like a perfect description of the NSA's activities.
Pierre Trudeau once declared, "The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation."
But does the state have any business peeping into the minds of the nation? The NSA/CSEC's voyeurism does not seek sexual titillation. Does that make it acceptable?
I suggest that a woman's thoughts have as much right to privacy as her body. Ditto for men.
The systems the NSA and CSEC use to gather information act like the gigantic trawl nets used by some fishing nations to scoop up everything in the sea, whether it's valuable or not, for later sorting and discarding. We condemn indiscriminate harvesting that destroys dolphins and tuna while attempting to gather scallops; we should be equally outraged at indiscriminate electronic harvesting.
National security and personal security are closely linked. A nation cannot be secure if it systematically undermines the security of its citizens. Citizens are not just a nation's means to an end; they are the nation. Security comes from the unity of a shared vision, a common purpose. It does not come from lurking in the bushes, hoping to catch an indiscretion.
In previous columns, I have argued that in today's world, there is no such thing as privacy. Surveillance cameras monitor your car in traffic. Closed circuit video records your passage in shopping malls and corporate offices. Airport security scanners examine you inside and out. Cellphones capture your actions when you least expect it.
But how much of yourself you choose to expose is still a matter of choice. You don't have to strip naked in front of shopping mall cameras. You don't have to bare your political ideology before you go into a bank.
CSEC and NSA strip away that choice.
So this is not just about privacy. It's about intrusion. It's akin to intellectual rape. It's about invading "places and times when a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy."
It's like a priest broadcasting your words from the confessional. Or a lawyer entering your privileged discussions as evidence against you.
It seems to me the NSA and CSEC may still believe in the divine right of kings. Once upon a time, it was taken for granted monarchs had absolute authority over their subjects. They could make laws, or break them. They could raise taxes, launch wars, seize property and execute opponents at their sole discretion.
When a woman married, the king or lord often had first rights to bed her. Few would endorse such practices today. But the state still presumes it has a divine right to insert itself into its subjects' private lives.
As I write this, I hear that the federal government has embedded new rules about snooping into an omnibus bill supposedly intended to protect young people from cyber-bullying. But only four of the bill's 70 pages deal with that subject. All the rest make it easier for the peeping Toms in government agencies to snoop on private conversations and emails.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist.