Theorizing Privacy in a Liberal Democracy: Canadian Jurisprudence, Anti-Terrorism, and Social Memory After 9/11

Valerie Steeves


The creation of new search powers in the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act post-9/11 to make citizens more transparent to state surveillance was less a new phenomenon than an extension of preexisting tendencies to make citizens transparent to the state, so the risks they pose can be efficiently managed. However, 9/11 brought about a shift in the ways in which the Supreme Court of Canada talked about terrorism; terrorism was no longer placed on a continuum of criminal activity but was elevated to a threat to Canadian values as a whole. I argue that, paradoxically, this shift reconnected the Court to earlier discourses about privacy as an essential element of democratic governance and reinvigorated narratives around the importance of the public-private boundary to democratic relationships by situating privacy within narratives informed by social memory. From this perspective, privacy can be conceptualized as a status claim: as citizens, we are entitled to privacy because privacy is the boundary that creates right relationships between citizens and between citizens and the state. This avoids pitting privacy as an individual right against societal interests in transparency because it more fully actualizes Priscilla Regan’s call to theorize the value of privacy as a public good central to liberal democratic governance. This conception also reconnects Alan Westin’s original understanding of privacy as an element of liberal democracy to the sociological research he drew on, enriching the liberal conception of privacy by locating it in the intersubjective communication of cultural actors living in community.


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