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Privacy watchdog 'understands' police visits to Olympics critics

Police visits to anti-Games critics are a necessary compromise between personal freedoms and Olympics security, one of Canada's top privacy officials suggested today.

"We've understood that [security forces] have the need to establish relationships with possible dissidents," Chantal Bernier told the Tyee. "That is preventative work in relation to public safety."

Canada's assistant privacy commissioner was in Vancouver today to speak at a public safety conference.

She outlined how she'd met with representatives from the $900 million Vancouver Integrated Security Unit last February. Since then, security forces have been open and responsive whenever privacy concerns arise, Bernier added.

"They have answered all of our questions," she said.

Last September, intelligence officers approached a friend of Olympics critic Chris Shaw. The incident raised many concerns about the balance between privacy and security. Bernier wouldn't comment on specific ISU cases.

"Our job is not to second guess their security measures," she said. "Our job is to make sure they comply with the privacy act."

Last week, 20 academics from five countries issued a declaration calling on local, provincial and national governments to look at Olympics security with a watchful eye.

"Recent Games have increasingly taken place in and contributed to a climate of fear, heightened security and surveillance," reads the Vancouver Statement. "This has often been to the detriment of democracy, transparency and human rights."

It included several recommendations such as an independant study of security costs and effects after the Olympics are over.

Bernier called the document "well crafted". RCMP Assistant Commissioner Bud Mercer, who effectively leads the ISU, said he hasn't read the statement.

But he questioned any implication that 2010 Games security could have a negative impact on civil liberties.

"The researchers haven't talked to me so they don't have the full story," he told the Tyee. "What is it that they're basing their information on? Rumour, innuendo or media? I'm not sure."

Mercer maintained Olympics security planning has been "balanced" so far. And tactics such as unscheduled meetings with critics are part of the ISU's mandate to "plan for everything", he added.

Geoff Dembicki reports for the Tyee.

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