Think you have nothing to hide? Here’s why you’re wrong

Regular readers will know my deep antipathy to the pro-surveillance canard “if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear”, so they’ll also know exactly why I’m linking to and quoting from this lengthy and careful debunking of it [via TechDirt]:

Legal and policy solutions focus too much on the problems under the Orwellian metaphor—those of surveillance—and aren’t adequately addressing the Kafkaesque problems—those of information processing. The difficulty is that commentators are trying to conceive of the problems caused by databases in terms of surveillance when, in fact, those problems are different.

Commentators often attempt to refute the nothing-to-hide argument by pointing to things people want to hide. But the problem with the nothing-to-hide argument is the underlying assumption that privacy is about hiding bad things. By accepting this assumption, we concede far too much ground and invite an unproductive discussion about information that people would very likely want to hide. As the computer-security specialist Schneier aptly notes, the nothing-to-hide argument stems from a faulty “premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong.” Surveillance, for example, can inhibit such lawful activities as free speech, free association, and other First Amendment rights essential for democracy.

The deeper problem with the nothing-to-hide argument is that it myopically views privacy as a form of secrecy. In contrast, understanding privacy as a plurality of related issues demonstrates that the disclosure of bad things is just one among many difficulties caused by government security measures. To return to my discussion of literary metaphors, the problems are not just Orwellian but Kafkaesque. Government information-gathering programs are problematic even if no information that people want to hide is uncovered. In The Trial, the problem is not inhibited behavior but rather a suffocating powerlessness and vulnerability created by the court system’s use of personal data and its denial to the protagonist of any knowledge of or participation in the process. The harms are bureaucratic ones—indifference, error, abuse, frustration, and lack of transparency and accountability.

Essential reading. Go now.

4 thoughts on “Think you have nothing to hide? Here’s why you’re wrong”

  1. The “nothing to hide” argument is also predicated on the fact that what you’re happy to have under surveillance is not illegal and/or immoral. But that could change; and you, as an individual, have no say in making that change.

  2. That was a good and thought-provoking article and one of the reasons I frequent this blog. It does make me wonder, however, whether all this time I would have been a bit wiser to have posted comments only under a pseudonym. 🙂

  3. One only has to look at “no-fly” lists and credit rating compilations to see the glaring dangers of this. Having lived six years under a military dictatorship who had access to such files (and used them) taught me the crappiness of “Nothing to hide” pseudo-arguments, usually made by people who sleep the sleep of the clueless.

  4. That should have been “dictatorship whose henchmen had access…” Medical and financial records are another example, by the way. Personally, I don’t like the idea of dispersing them electronically. The potential for abuse is clear.

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