The Government has no business Data Mining the Bedrooms of the Nation

There’s a minor kerfuffle going on in the press that gave me a ponder. Specifically, it gave me a ponder about the stuff that I reasonably expect the Canadian media to report on in contrast to what I expect the blogosphere (or, rather, the parts of the blogosphere that interest me) to talk about.

Here’s the kerfuffle: recently, the office of our Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney, sent out an email to QUILTBAG and QUILTBAG-friendly folks. Here’s most of the text of that of that email:


Last Friday, my colleague John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs, spoke in great detail about Canada’s principled foreign policy, including our efforts to promote basic freedoms around the world, and to take a stand against the persecution of gays and lesbians, and against the marginalization of women in many societies. I made similar remarks in my speech last November to the global conference of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where I raised the particular plight of gay and lesbian refugees.

As Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, I believe that Canada should always be a place of refuge for those who truly need our protection. That is why we continue to welcome those fleeing persecution, which oftentimes includes certain death, including on the basis of sexual orientation.

We are proud of the emphasis our Conservative Government has placed on gay and lesbian refugee protection, which is without precedent in Canada’s immigration history. We have increased the resettlement of gay refugees living abroad as part of our refugee programs. In particular, we have taken the lead in helping gay refugees who have fled often violent persecution in Iran to begin new, safe lives in Canada. We are also helping community groups like the Rainbow Refugee Committee to sponsor gay refugees for resettlement to Canada

The key question that a lot of recipients of the email wondered, was: “How does Jason Kenny know my sexual orientation?” The media has been all over this question, and it looks pretty clear that the emails were harvested from an online petition. Here’s Macleans on the topic:

After a mass email, which praised the Harper governments record on gay refugees from Iran, was sent to members of the gay and lesbian community from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s office, many in the community worried that their privacy has been compromised, the CBC reports. The most worrying issue among respondents is how Kenney’s office came to know their sexual orientation.

Many Canadians expressed anger and fear over Kenney’s email yesterday on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Randall Garrison, the NDP critic for LGBT issues, said that the targeted emails brought up a “serious privacy question.” Many who commented yesterday said that sexual orientation is a sensitive issue and should not be the subject of political targeting.

A spokeswoman for Kenney said the email was a “response to individuals who have communicated with our office about gay refugee issues,” but many who received the email say they have never communicated with the Minister’s office. The National Post reported that the email addresses were mined from an online petition protesting the deportation of a gay artist from Nicaragua, who was then facing deportation because he could not “prove” he was gay. After signing the petition, names and emails were automatically sent to Kenney’s office.

Others accuse Kenney of “pink-washing” the issue of gay refugees in order to support the issue he truly cares about—criticizing Iran. Kenney, who describes himself as a strict Roman Catholic, does not have a well-publicized history of engaging in LGBT issues.

Now, for me, that last paragraph raises the most important issues. First, Jason Kenney does not support QUILTBAG issues. He appointed the notorious anti-gay activist, Doug Cryer, to the Immigration and Refugee Board. He supported a fundraiser of an anti-gay comic, Guy Earle, who was trying to raise money to pay off damages stemming from Earle’s homophobic remarks. And let’s not forget the infamous incident of him removing gay rights references from the new citizenship guide. Heck, he even voted against Marriage Equality.

And more importantly, Kenney’s email is clearly an attempt to use queer folks’ identities to stoke an anti-Iran sentiment at a time when the government is cutting off ties with the country, and the Western world is beating the war drums again. This is the way you foment dissent and uncertainty among progressives, and it is a strategy the Conservatives have mastered fairly well.

But most of the Canadian media considers that part of the story at most an aside. What they’ve focused on — the key “issue” in their minds — is privacy. The Vancouver Sun writes:

Erickson says he has mixed feelings about Kenney’s use of the petition he created to build an emailing database of people interested in gay immigration issues.

He says he never had any response from Kenney’s office last year, when Alvaro faced deportation.

“To be ignored for the year, then to get a piece of propaganda, is disrespectful,” he said.

But Erickson said that people who received the email had clearly consented to a reply and obviously had an interest in issues surrounding the protection of LGBT people who come to Canada from other countries.

He says Kenney’s office should have explained to people why they were getting the note.

The CBC, doing a round-up of responses to the letters wrote:

The story quickly became one of the most commented upon on Hundreds of CBC readers debated the appropriateness of the email, and whether private information about Canadians should be used for partisan purposes.

Global News writes:

Canadians expect answers from their politicians, but an unsolicited message sent to citizens concerned about gay refugees from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has sparked a debate about privacy in politics.

Kenney sent a bulk email from his MP’s office to thousand of Canadians titled “LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Refugees in Iran.” The text outlined how the Conservative government was supporting the rights of homosexual refugees.

I think that privacy is an important issue, given how thoroughly we’re being tracked, profiled, clustered, mined and monitored. But in my opinion, the privacy element of this particular story pales beside the other issues that this case raises.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t really shock me that the mainstream media is glomming on to privacy as the “angle”. Fundamentally, I don’t think that those news outlets are capable of having those other conversations. And this is why I’m glad for “citizen journalists” of blogs and other social media — because they are capable of having those conversations.

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