Ramping up security and surveillance may heighten the already widespread climate of fear and suspicion.
Like all of today’s mega-events, the G8 and G20 summits have spawned significant security and surveillance efforts. The costs, as for the Vancouver Olympics, top $1 billion, but the summit lasts only for a few days. Though they are questionable, those are just the economic costs. The social and political costs have yet to be counted. While they’re harder to compute than cash, some are clear already – and more significant.
Becoming more prevalent in the late 20th-century cultures of risk management, and especially since 9-11, security and surveillance have become key features not only of life in general but also of large-scale events, from sports to summits. One key trend is towards zoning areas affected by the event and fencing off, literally and figuratively, the security zone. Within the fence, security measures are ramped up and surveillance is intensified. The extraordinary becomes normal inside.
Torontonians are already aware of the traffic disruptions around the security perimeter and of the new array of surveillance cameras installed especially for the summit (the Globe and Mail published a list of locations, so we can check they come down afterwards, as promised). The increased police presence – with both local officers and the OPP and RCMP, not to mention Canadian Forces, working together in the Integrated Security Unit (ISU) – is also palpable. Questions are rightly asked about the appropriateness and safety of the “sound cannons” (long-range acoustic devices, or LRADs) that may be used against protesters. These things make headlines.
Less noticed are other items, such as the ID regime for local residents and business people or the already-existing surveillance cameras that could be used in new ways during the G20. So-called accreditation is ”voluntary,” but data has already been gleaned from locals, and only those with passes will be permitted in the immediate vicinity of the summit centre. As well, the OPP now uses automated licence plate recognition (ALPR) in some of their cruisers. In the U.K., these devices have been used to flag “persons of interest,” including political protesters. They could well be used here too.
It’s common for mega-events to be used as test beds for new security measures, among which new surveillance devices have a high profile. And of course, no one objects to updating security techniques or learning from others’ experience in the legitimate attempt to combat terrorism. But questions are rightly raised about proportionality and about whether or not ramping up security and surveillance unnecessarily heightens the already widespread climate of fear and suspicion. Is that really a farmer buying fertilizer? This is a serious social concern and one that also has political implications.
It’s made worse by another trend: confusing the activities of terrorists and protesters. While terrorists by definition are willing to countenance loss of life in procuring their ends, the vast majority of protesters would be horrified by the thought that their actions might damage even property, let alone life. Have we forgotten the image of union president Dave Coles demanding that masked men holding rocks (who turned out to be police) stay within boundaries set by authorities at Montebello, Quebec in 2007? To confuse terrorism with protest, as has occurred at several events – peaceful protesters in Vancouver, for example, were visited in their homes by police before and during the Olympics, while others were refused entry into Canada – does damage to democracy and to charter rights to freedom of speech and assembly. What happened in Vancouver is already happening again in Toronto.
The price tag on G20 security may seem exorbitant, but maybe that’s part of the message: we support the fast-growing security economy with its heavy emphasis on high-tech surveillance. The social and political costs have no particular price tag but have to be considered on other criteria.
Right now, we are reinforcing a society based on fear and suspicion, of which concerns generated by summit security and surveillance are but the tip of an iceberg. Where is the Canada of mutual care and trust? And our attention is deflected from the pressing concerns about which one hopes world leaders will deliberate, and from the vital voices of those who question their priorities.