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« With a Little Help from my Friends (and Colleagues): The Multidisciplinary Requirement for Privacy | Main | Escaping your history »

Privacy Issues and Canada’s Faith Communities

posted by:Travis Dumsday // 11:41 PM // March 07, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX

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Broadly speaking, public policy issues have an unfortunate tendency to become ghettoised, with particular problems being championed by certain segments of society while being mostly ignored by other interest groups and society at large. Thus certain segments become associated in both public and official consciousness, rightly or wrongly, with certain issues. The aboriginal community for instance tends to be associated mostly with issues directly relevant to that community, such as the economic development of reservations, preservation of native languages, etc. I call this ghettoisation unfortunate partly because it can lead to an accompanying tendency on the part of government and media to ignore the community’s involvement and stake in other issues. In the aboriginal example this might include the environmental advocacy undertaken by some native groups. Worse, it can lead to insular thinking in the group itself; when government and media link a community with a particular, narrow set of interests and issues, a subtle yet compelling psychological pull can be created in which the community unconsciously conforms itself to that image and ignores problems which may be of vital interest to it.

With that in mind, if someone asked you to write down a list of the issues of interest to Canadian religious communities, what would be the first item to pop into your mind? I realize that ‘Canadian religious communities’ is an exceedingly broad designating phrase, but humour me for a moment. What comes up first? Gay marriage? Abortion? Government funding of religious schools? I suspect that one of these three will be uppermost in the minds of many readers. Poverty relief and advocacy, peace initiatives, interfaith dialogue, these will tend to take a mental backseat, despite the tremendous time and resources which Canadian religious communities devote to these issues. How about privacy? Would that enter anywhere on the radar screen? I suspect not. I further suspect that this would be the case for most of those who would consider themselves members of these communities. Privacy is not seen as a ‘religious’ issue. But faith groups in this country are going to have to address some difficult questions relating to privacy in the near future, if they are not embroiled in them already.

In this context I think especially of the position of Canada’s Islamic community. If CSIS were to send undercover agents to attend services at mosques and monitor sermons given by Canadian Imams, in the hopes of spotting nascent terrorist sympathies or recruiting tactics, would this be a privacy violation? Leave aside for a moment the question of whether, if a violation, it would be justified. Is this even a privacy issue? It may be. In the philosophical literature on privacy and privacy rights the question has been raised as to whether groups, and not merely individuals, can possess a right to privacy. I think it has been convincingly argued that they can. For example, if a member of the Freemasons or some other secret society reveals to a reporter the group’s inner workings and rituals, it is plausible to think that the privacy of the group has been violated. Or consider some sensitive corporate meetings, or for that matter the meetings of the Canadian cabinet, whose minutes are kept sealed for decades. For a member of these groups to reveal what went on in such meetings is to violate the group’s privacy. And this is not merely a question of a group member violating the group’s trust. If an intrepid reporter were to plant a bug in the cabinet meeting room, he would be violating its privacy.

But can government surveillance of religious gatherings be considered in this light? After all, aren’t religious services public? Then presumably for the government to monitor their proceedings could not be a violation of privacy. I think this is a plausible argument, but am not entirely happy with it. For although the services may be open to anyone, it can be argued that there is an implicit understanding present whereby those in attendance at a worship service are there for friendly or at least neutral reasons (curiosity, for instance). If someone attends the service for potentially hostile reasons, this understanding is breached. Yet how does this relate to privacy?

This is where some further conceptual analysis comes in handy. Philosophers have been arguing for several decades about the nature of privacy. I believe that the proper view of privacy is essentially informational. Person X has privacy with respect to fact P if and only if P is not known and is in some way sensitive information, ie. information that if revealed might cause some harm to X. Now a loss of privacy occurs whenever such information is revealed, irrespective of to whom it is revealed. If someone reveals a fact to her priest in the confessional, she loses privacy with respect to that information and in regard to that person, the priest. But there has of course been no privacy violation. The information has been willingly relinquished. But there are times when information is willingly relinquished but in which privacy is still violated. If the woman confesses to someone she believes to be a priest, but who in fact is an imposter who gets a kick out of hearing people’s confessions, a gross violation of privacy has obviously taken place. Or consider a spy at a Freemason meeting, who is there only to gather information to release to the media. He too is violating privacy, in this case the privacy of the group.

But can this analysis be extended to public religious gatherings? Two questions arise here. One is whether any privacy violation can take place in the context of a public gathering. If this is possible, then it is possible of a public religious gathering. The other is whether, and perhaps to what extent, some religious gatherings, in this case services at a mosque, are truly public.

It is quite clear that violations of privacy can occur in a public setting. If Mrs. Jones stands up at a town hall meeting and tells of how her neighbour’s husband is having an affair, it is plausible to think that some sort of privacy violation has just occurred. So if private information is revealed in public, the fact that it is in a public setting does nothing to mitigate the violation; quite the opposite, in fact. But what about information which is revealed in a public setting which does not involve the violation of any individual’s privacy? Can a person violate privacy by virtue of his attendance at a public gathering? This may depend on what counts as ‘public.’ Here is another tricky conceptual problem. I think that sufficient conditions for a gathering to be public would be if it were held on public property and advertised as open to anyone with no explicit conditions of entry. A public town hall meeting, for example, or an organized and free gathering in a public park. But these are obviously not necessary conditions; a public gathering can be held on private property, for instance. A necessary condition is more difficult to come up with. But I think a plausible candidate would be that a gathering is public if it is open to anyone; more detailed specification is no doubt required here, but what I mean is something like a gathering in which no one is excluded on some specific grounds, whether explicit or implicit, such as being a woman, or of a certain race or political affiliation. Any meeting in which such exclusions are made cannot properly be termed ‘public.’

So is a worship service at a mosque a public event? Well, certainly no one is excluded on grounds of race or gender. But it is not unreasonable to think that someone would be excluded if it were known that he was there on behalf of CSIS to collect information for the government. You could say then that the gathering is restricted on grounds of employment, or perhaps motivation of the attendee. Thus the service is not a public gathering in the same sense as the town hall meeting would be, in which a CSIS agent presumably could not be excluded even if his presence were known, indeed even if he were there on behalf of CSIS, however uncomfortable it might make the other members of the public and the municipal officials.

So a mosque service is not a public event, or at least not fully public, if indeed it makes sense to speak of degrees of publicity. This being the case, someone might violate the privacy of those in attendance simply by virtue of his attendance, if it is understood that he is excluded from the event on some ground. If I sneak into a Freemason meeting and pretend to be a Mason, I am violating that group’s privacy. If I in bad faith and under misleading pretenses attend services at a mosque, I think it is reasonable to see this as a similar violation. This is the case even though the event is nowhere near as private as the Freemason gathering; it is still private to some extent, by virtue of the implicit exclusion of certain peoples, namely those of bad faith or inappropriate motives. This is an exclusion which would not apply in the context of more or fully public gatherings, such as the town hall meeting. Thus the surveillance of mosques by undercover CSIS agents can plausibly be thought of as a privacy issue.

Of course, so far as I know there is no evidence to indicate that such surveillance is going on. And again, it is quite possible that such surveillance would be justified in some cases, with interests of public safety overriding privacy concerns. But here we have an instance of a privacy issue which should no doubt be of concern to Canada’s religious communities. I think this illustrates that the stakeholders in privacy policy are much wider than one might think from a casual scan of the civil liberties groups one typically associates with the issue.

Travis Dumsday is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Waterloo

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