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Big Brother Database

Last spring it became known that the Canadian government had compiled a rather extensive database about each of us 30 million Canadians. With one click of the mouse, a civil servant could find out a lot about any Canadian’s taxes, health, criminal record, etc. While these databases have been around for quite some time, this is the first time all data was gathered in one spot.

Seizing an opportunity to look good, the opposition parties denounced this one big database as being “Big Brother.” The government party did not even fight this issue too long; they succumbed and informed us the database would be dismantled. The opposition patted themselves on their backs with this political victory. But was it a victory?

For some unknown reason, the civil service had a need to compile several databases into one. So they did, and probably without the government party’s knowledge or approval. They certainly did it without the approval of Parliament and public scrutiny.

If it was created underground before, it can be created underground again. If no one was punished for creating this database the first time, what is there to stop any one from building another one? I suspect that the Big Brother database was not dismantled: it is still thriving underground — known only to a handful of civil servants!

In the 1950s and 1960s, one million Canadians and ten million Americans were put on a list of “communist sympathizers.” If one was on this list, one could be refused a job or promotion, be fired from a job, denied a passport or government services, etc. There was no trial or due process whether one deserved to be on this list, and it was almost impossible to be removed from this list. Many people on the list were not even aware of their “communist” status and could not figure out why doors seemed closed to them.

The crime required to put someone on this list could have been something as benign as attending a Pete Seeger concert — or being a friend of someone who attended a Pete Seeger concert.

The amazing thing about this list is that the “thought police” created it without computers!

Databases can be dangerous. If there are no legal controls on databases, what is there to stop a civil servant from abusing the database — or even selling some of it to a third party — or even changing some of the information?

I’m not against databases, and I am not against compiling all current databases into one big database. Databases make affairs of government, business, and institutions easier and less costly to run. As a taxpayer, I like to see efficient operations. But databases can easily be used for very evil purposes. Without public knowledge that a database exists, regular audits into how a database is used, an appeals process when errant information is entered, and legislative controls that spells out a punishment for abusing a database, databases will be used for purposes other than the efficient running of government operations.

But it appears our current political system has pushed a very large database underground.

Published in The Brooks & Country Chronicle 2000

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