Don't Care About Surveillance? You're Probably White and Middle Class

I'll admit it: I have to force myself to care about government surveillance. Intellectually, I get why it's important. The growing power imbalance between government and citizen is messed up. The databases are potential cesspools of discrimination. We'd live in a better world if corporations didn't turn over our private information just because the feds asked.

Emotionally, I become more outraged when avocados aren't ripe at the Superstore.

My reaction is no anomaly. A study by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and Nanos found 60 per cent of Canadians would do nothing "if they suspected the government was spying on them."

And we know it is.

The most recent revelations about Canadian surveillance should keep us up at night. Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) used airport WiFi to track Canadian travellers. At least one telecom company allowed the government to CC itself on our emails and the NSA, the lovely U.S. government agency that can listen to phone calls and collect Americans' Internet activity without court approval, is a big ol' sugar mama to Canada's spy program. And that's just what we know (my friend reading Glenn Greenwald's book is now full-on paranoid).

Yet you'll still hear educated people use "I've got nothing to hide," to explain their apathy. What that really means is "I'm too privileged to be a target." Low-income people and minorities are already caught in a surveillance tsunami.

Sociologists say that unless you're a tech aficionado, it's hard to care about government spying that doesn't affect your daily life. For most white, middle-class people, data gathering seems abstract. We can't see it happen and the only manifestation is a targeted ad on our Gmail that we might dismiss with a "well, that's creepy."

For poor people, surveillance is an everyday reality.

Take welfare recipients. To prevent fraud, the government uses eight surveillance tools to police those on Ontario Works, according to a study by Krystle Maki at Queen's University. They range from old-school techniques such as random house visits, snitch lines and drug testings to a web of databases known as "mashups."

Of course we don't want liars to receive government money, but a report to Toronto Social Services found the fraud rate was .003 per cent. Yet on suspicion alone, Eligibility Review Officers (EROs) can search a person's home and take any relevant documents. They can show up at a recipients' workplace, pester their friends and family and access entire databases of information on a suspect.

The less fortunate in our society understand the menace of surveillance, but they can't do much about it. The welfare measures are a classic power play: authorities know recipients depend on monthly cheques. They also know the low-income population has little political power. John Gilliom, author of Overseers of the Poor, says that rather than engage with the privacy/surveillance debate, the impoverished speak in an "everyday language of ... fear, anger, resistance, frustration and power" that doesn't often reach Capitol Hill.

But understanding the issues is no panacea. Gilliom found that unionized, skilled workers were among "the most articulate resistors of surveillance." A group of electricians in Seattle spoke about how being forced to take drug tests violated the Fourth Amendment rights. Yet they still didn't have the means to fight back, whether against government surveillance or privacy breaches in general.

The affluent are less concerned with intrusions because they can defend themselves in a pinch. "I know that if I get into trouble I can afford to hire a great attorney," says Gilliom, "whereas for someone with a public defender, (privacy invasions) will be very scary and have lots of consequences." Sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng interviewed an African-American whose life was ruined by identity theft. The woman found a cheap attorney who gave her bad advice: declare bankruptcy. As a result she lost her job, all her money and became depressed.

It's no surprise that minorities are fearful of authority when they are the most targeted and least able to protect themselves. A study from The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that African-Americans and Hispanics with Internet access were more concerned about online privacy than white people.

While privileged populations often laud surveillance measures as a way to fight terrorism, minorities are burdened by the results. Ask the Middle Eastern man with a beard who gets treated like Maher Arar at the border about his thoughts on privacy. And government infringement is only getting worse. The International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG) issued a report that describes how the more than 17 border control programs now in place are disproportionately aimed at certain ethnic groups.

From a social justice perspective, we should care that fellow Canadians are being targeted. But there's also a more selfish reason. As government spying becomes more sinister, privilege is not a get-out-of-surveillance-free card. The "I-have-nothing-to-fear" defence should be qualified with "until I don't." Government has a nasty habit of extending its reach over time. That's a reality none of us should hide from.


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