11/07/2013 04:41 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Spying You Into Submission -- And Poverty

In my previous article, I touched upon one aspect of "coming out" -- especially as transgender -- in the workplace: Colleagues as well as supervisors feel entitled to know the intimate details of the co-worker who has "come out" but fiercely maintain their own right to privacy.

It got me to thinking, again, about the revelations of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, and what has happened in the United States since September 11, 2001.

In the decade-plus since that day, Americans have allowed themselves to be subjected to levels of prying and snooping that would have been unthinkable only a few months earlier. The reason, I believe, is that Americans were essentially scared into going along with the provisions of the PATRIOT Act: After the Twin Towers fell, people were ready to believe that their political leaders and armed forces were all that stood between them and more death raining down from the sky. And, the administration of George W. Bush was all too ready and willing to parlay that fear into a kind of home-grown terrorism: If you didn't go along with what was being done ostensibly to protect us, you could be subject to the wrath of your own government, which could jail, commit violence against and even kill you.

It's often been said that the Great Recession and the "bubbles" that preceded it are the causes of so much of the social and economic disparity we see today. Indeed, the divide between the "haves" and "have-nots" has become a yawning chasm over the past decade, and even longer: As the "haves" own a greater share of this country's wealth, ever-greater numbers of people become "have-nots". The deeper one falls into the latter category, the more vulnerable one is to intrusions on his or her life -- and the more willing those who haven't (or simply don't realize they have) fallen into that class are willing to go along with surveillance of the poor and disenfranchised. And, the more the powerful pry into the lives of the powerless, the more opaque the powerful become -- or, at any rate, try to make themselves.

We have seen examples, both in fiction and real life, of what happens when transparency is expected from one class (or the mass) of people while those who expect, and enforce that transparency, reserve for themselves the right to be opaque: in novels like 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale, in North Korea and other dictatorships. Soon after those who are surveilled become increasingly broken in will and spirit and thus more malleable, the day comes when the surveillers do not need the consent of , or have to fear rebellion from, the surveilled. By that time, they are already impoverished -- physically and materially as well as intellectually and spiritually -- and find themselves losing whatever little they still have: When a government (or, worse, a corporation) knows every detail of a person's life and that person can't get to know his or her surveiller well enough to fight effectively, his or her right to work or otherwise generate income for the necessities of life is controlled. As we have seen in countries like North Korea, it's not hard to coerce frightened, spied-upon people to work for food.

It almost goes without saying that people so poor and therefore so dependent on the good will of those who would employ or provide for them are ripe for even more spying and other forms of exploitation. And those who insist on maintaining their right to privacy while demanding to know more and more about the life of someone they marginalize can only see that person as their inferior, as someone who has no right to better his or her lot in life. This can only lead to further exploitation and marginalization -- and widen the gap between an "have" and a "have not" in ways than even that legislation bought and paid for by Bank of America could not.

Some people believe that subjecting ourselves to constant surveillance is necessary for our own protection. But when you no longer can move about freely, and you've lost your job and any possibility of getting another because of information that was misused, what, exactly do you have to protect?

I'll conclude with a piece of advice that I, too often, have not followed: Never allow anyone to know more about you than they are willing to allow you to know about them--unless you want to be their slave.