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The spread of surveillance has acquired the unstoppable aura of climate change. Just this week The Writers’ Union of Canada reported that 5 per cent of its members said they’d been spied on; 7 per cent felt “some level” of harassment; and 60 per cent expect their work to be affected in the future. The National Security Agency in the U.S. admitted it has implanted devices to monitor computers that aren’t even on the Internet. And a bill backed by Stephen Harper would force anyone applying for jobs with public agencies like Elections Canada to “disclose” any political party activity. I’m deliberately jumbling categories because I think we’re dealing with a sort of wave: laws, technologies and public responses.

The amorphousness seems to overwhelm people and undermine their ability to fight back, or even flail in rage. That appeared to happen in the ice storm. It’s shocking how many people simply accepted loss of power for days. But we’ve been numbed by a sense of inevitability in climate-related horrors.

So what can we make of the surveillance wave, public and private versions?

What you could call the Snowden phase began last June in a torrent of exposés on official spying. They focused concern on government agencies like the NSA in the U.S. or the Communications Security Establishment Canada here. That in turn elicited fears of incipient fascist or totalitarian governments suppressing dissent — in right-wing garb like Bush-Cheney or leftish camouflage like Obama. But the same fears applied: the bad guys are in charge and if good guys were, things would be safer.

I don’t agree. The general objection to monstrous surveillance isn’t that the wrong guys run it; it’s that it’s none of your damn business, whoever you are. It doesn’t matter who’s in charge, including me or you. The problem isn’t politics; it’s human nature. Anyone is tempted to behave badly, and will, with that kind of power.

It’s not quite Christian original sin, though I think the religious doctrine arises from the same existential realities. The bumper stickers that say, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” are dead wrong. You may have nothing to hide but you have everything to fear. If you doubt that, think of people in petty power positions like immigration officials, educational bureaucrats or parking violation ticketers. They don’t all abuse their power but many do some of the time and some do all of the time.

So the answer isn’t the right people in charge or in oversight positions. I have nothing against short-term fixes but the ones put in place for intelligence overreach in the 1970s (in the U.S. or here, with the creation of CSIS) started to crumble almost immediately and are now dust. The long-term solution is to make sure no one has that kind of power. If that sounds like anarchism, sue me.

Noam Chomsky, that endlessly fertile thinker, has been quoting the German-Jewish anarchist Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958) a lot lately, on the need to challenge “structures of hierarchy and domination … to demonstrate their legitimacy.” If they can’t, “dismantle them and reconstruct them from below.” Anarchism goes less and less out of style. And yes, I think underwear bombers must be dealt with, but not by brainless, costly, counterproductive methods.

Meanwhile, all that focus on government spying lets private surveillers off the hook. “In theory it’s your choice to give data to private companies,” says U.S. critic Peter van Buren. “You could stop using Facebook, after all.” I think he understates the symbiosis between the two realms: in personnel, technology and mutual dependence. It’s none of Google’s damn business, either. But resistance here seems just as futile. You can encrypt or install countermeasures, but those guys will just create better ways to mine your data for ads, etc.

Then how about starting at the other end: deprive them of their motive by eliminating the profit potential. How? Well, one reason insurance companies spy in the U.S. is to find pre-existing medical conditions in order to deny coverage. That should vanish under Obamacare. And with universal coverage here, there’s no motive to start with. It’s a sort of workaround against privacy invasion. How widely you could deploy that strategy is another question — an intriguing one.

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This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Susan Melkisethian/flickr


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.