The Biggest Snoops

Published by at 5:23 am under Governance

Lorne Gunter
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

It never ceases to amaze me how many people have blind faith in the competence and neutrality of government. For instance, recent economic bailouts are premised on the notion that governments — which are really nothing more than conglomerates of politicians, bureaucrats and experts paid to tell leaders what they want to hear –are somehow smarter than investors and consumers at deciding what products and industries deserve help, how much and when.

I am convinced the current recession is being prolonged and deepened not by market failure, but by scattergun government intervention. Few people are prepared to invest or consume so long as governments are sending out conflicting signals (and trillions of dollars) in all directions at once. So unless and until governments can stop “helping,” things will continue to worsen.

This is why Ford’s simple idea to have governments send large cheques to new car buyers — as opposed to spending the same amount on bailouts to failing auto makers –is genius. Individual consumers cannot make big economic errors — only tiny, incremental ones — so there is far less chance car buyers could make as big a mess as a committee of a dozen government officials and stakeholder overseeing the same amount of money.

There are, of course, other widely held fallacies about the benevolence of government. The notion that government rights commissions are the best guardians of our freedoms is one. Since time immemorial, governments — chief, emperors, kings, dictators, generals, archbishops (when they have doubled as princes) and other despots — have posed greater threats to our freedom than all the merchants in all the backrooms in the world.

Then there is the belief that if an oil company provides a tiny subsidy to a climate scientist the latter instantly becomes a tainted and unbelievable denier. Meanwhile, scientists benefiting from the billions that governments spend each year on global warming research are untainted and objective, even though big governments will be the biggest beneficiaries if the public can be convinced that climate change is a global problem requiring national and international solutions.

Or how about the belief, inherent in public health care monopolies, that civil servants can better direct health care dollars than doctors or patients?

Still, the area where faith in government is perhaps most misplaced is in the threat to privacy. Without question, governments are the biggest snoops around, yet, for some reason, millions see corporations as a bigger threat. Governments have vastly more personal data on each of us than even the largest corporations –in census, tax and health treatment records governments have a treasure trove of embarrassing and potentially damaging data on every one of us.

Not only that, they are finding it easier and easier to gather more of our personal lives as technology lowers the bar for collection, storage, retrieval and combination of information. And politicians are thinking up new applications all the time. For instance, matching public surveillance cameras to face-recognition software was first justified for its ability to catch thieves and terrorists. But now in some jurisdictions, it is being considered for use in identifying men behind on their support payments.

Wherever cheap investigative technology exists there will be pressure to expand its uses — by government — into all sorts of areas and applications where it has no business. And this will all be done in the name of social justice or the public good, security or enlightenment.

No government — left or right — is immune from these temptations. Still, only governments — not corporations — have the power to enforce compliance.

The most recent issue of Scientific American is devoted to privacy in the technological age. And the common theme in its dozen or so articles is that we have as much to fear from corporations as governments. There is some truth to this theory: Corporations often get hold of private data they have no business possessing, and some corporations would collect, steal and use tons of other personal info if it helped boost sales.

But while you may cease to do business with corporations (except those to which governments have granted monopolies) you cannot choose to be ungoverned.

Corporate violations of privacy are no better than those committed by government. But in the end, because it has vastly more ways of breaching it and more power to do so, government is by far the bigger threat to our privacy.