A Canadian Program Is Monitoring People’s Online Habits to Prevent ‘Radicalization’

Experts worry that peaceful protesters, such as Black Lives Matter or Indigenous activists, could be wrongly caught up in the program.
May 19, 2021, 5:27pm
Experts in radicalization and civil liberties say the aShift program could ensnare peaceful protesters and activists.
Experts in radicalization and civil liberties say the Shift program could ensnare peaceful protesters and activists. Photo via Pexels

Update: Several weeks after the publication of this article, a spokesperson for Shift BC pushed back on several parts of this story, saying it would never consider “activism as suitable criteria for inclusion” in the program, that the majority of its participants fall under the lens of “far-right extremism”, and that law enforcement is analyzing online behaviour, not the Shift program.

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Social service providers in at least one Canadian province are monitoring the behavior of people believed to be "on the path" to radicalization, and intervening long before a person has been accused of a crime.

Experts in radicalization and civil liberties say the approach could ensnare peaceful protesters and activists. 

Shift BC, an initiative of British Columbia's Ministry of Public Safety, aims to prevent radicalization by analyzing behaviour and speech, both on and offline, and intervening if someone is thought to be at risk of becoming violent. 

Shift, which is civilian-led, receives most referrals directly from police, schools and other service providers. But documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request show that Shift also gets referrals from Situation Tables, sometimes called Hubs, a controversial partnership between police and social services to identify people believed to be "at risk" of becoming a criminal or victim of crime. Previous VICE investigations have found that Hubs disproportionately target minors and Indigenous women and that data about people assessed by Hubs is kept in a Risk-Tracking Database

Unlike Hubs, which focus on risk factors to prompt intervention—such as whether a person is unemployed, likes to party, or has urinated in public—Shift expands the Hub approach into the realm of monitoring individuals' ideological beliefs and online habits. 

Amarnath Amarasingam, a professor at Queen's University and expert on extremist movements, told VICE World News in a phone call that while addressing early indicators of radicalization is important, the broad nature of Shift BC could lead to activists being subject to intervention.

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"There are concerns that Black Lives Matter and Indigenous activists, for example, could be identified as being on the path to radicalization," Amarasingam said. "There's a risk of false positives when individuals decide what statements or behaviours are considered radical, without clear guidelines."  

A spokesperson for B.C.'s public safety ministry said in an email that "Shift participants have been identified due to action(s) or utterances of concern either online or offline, often non-criminal in nature" that bring the person onto the radar of police, educators or others, who then refer the person to Shift. 

The Shift BC website says the goal of the program is to disrupt "the trajectories of those who may be proceeding down the path of radicalization to violence." According to the site, Shift does not target "individuals who are at imminent risk of committing an act of violence, or who fall under the scope of law enforcement." 

"Shift recognizes that individuals vulnerable to radicalization to violence do not have one single profile," the website says. "(Shift) is intended for individuals engaging with any manifestation of violent extremism and is not focused on or targeting one specific group, demographic, or ideology." 

"Individuals who are legally expressing radical views or opinions can still benefit from the voluntary services that Shift has to offer," a ministry spokesperson said. 

But Abby Deshman, Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), said there are inherent risks to the Shift approach. 

"We know that police services have monitored grassroots movements because they were expressing dissenting viewpoints or engaging in peaceful protests," said Deshman. "Sometimes, police have assigned these groups labels such as ‘radicals’ or ‘terrorists’ for engaging in constitutionally-protected activity." 

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Canadian activists, including Indigenous protestors resisting development on unceded territories, have in the past been accused by police of committing terrorist acts for vandalism or engaging in civil disobedience.

"Indigenous peoples are viewed as radical for believing the teachings of our peoples," Shay lynn Sampson of Indigenous Climate Action said in an email. "It's hard to imagine that the same thing won’t happen (with Shift BC)."

Participation in Shift is voluntary. But Hubs, which refer people to Shift, require police and social service agencies to share personal information about individuals, often without consent. One health care ethicist has said Hubs could be violating individuals' Charter rights. A ministry briefing note says Shift "depends on Situation Tables" as a source for referrals and encourages the creation of new Tables to provide more referrals to Shift. 

Amarasingam has concerns that the Shift approach could easily lead to the policing of protected speech. 

"When you lower the threshold of what's considered radicalization to violence, you increase the risk of false positives," Amarasingam said, pointing to Canada's labelling of the far-right Proud Boys as a terrorist group as an example. "With Shift BC and similar programs, there needs to be strong protections in place to ensure that legal speech and behaviour isn't labelled as violent extremism."