"I Have Nothing to Hide" Privacy Argument is a Fallacy
I was having lunch with a couple of buddies the other day. We were discussing the FBI versus Apple issue when one brought out the old “I have nothing to hide argument” when discussing government surveillance and privacy.
The argument that you have nothing to hide is a fallacy. Everyone has something to hide or secure from others. Passwords, credit card numbers, keys, smart phones, websites visited, emails - the list is long.
There are several rebuttals to this statement, but I’ll just list a couple:
- Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say.
- The right to privacy is the right to self. You "own" you. You decide when you want to share you and when you don't. It is really just that simple.
Glenn Greenwald speaks to the issue in much more depth and with greater eloquence than I, but whenever he hears the argument, his reply is this: “Here's my email address. What I want you to do when you get home is email me the passwords to all of your email accounts, not just the nice, respectable work one in your name, but all of them, because I want to be able to just troll through what it is you're doing online, read what I want to read and publish whatever I find interesting. After all, if you're not a bad person, if you're doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide.”
What Greenwald is proposing is a person-to-person request to disclose. It has context. In that environment, the person thinking about releasing access to all his email accounts immediately considers context, and how the requesting party - not a law enforcement agency - may view and/or use whatever is discovered. Careers and lives can be destroyed by divulging secrets that while not illegal, can certainly be embarrassing. Giving anyone the ability to surveil you makes all of each less secure, because if there is anything we’ve learned from the past few decades of internet, it’s that data wants to be free. Once one party has the data, others are sure to find it.
So see, it’s about context. When talking about the state, or specifically, the USA, it is assumed that you are only talking about terrorism or other illegal things that the USA is looking for.
"an efficient police state doesn't need police” Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs
But, ask anyone that has lived in a police state. The surveillance part creeps in, usually under the guise of security. Are you on a list of registered gun owners? Congratulations, that is the first list that will be used to unarm a society. “Why should I hide the fact that I am Jewish?” was probably said by thousands of people in Germany in the 30s.
There are some leaders that talk about increasing surveillance of Muslims in the United States of America. Today. If you are Muslim, you should be outraged. What if 2 decades from now, it is Catholics, or Baptists, or NRA members? Or maybe the state thinks everyone that has participated in a political rally should be placed under surveillance. Personally, I think clowns should be placed under surveillance, because, well, clowns.
So, the USA is not 1930s Germany, or Iraq, or North Korea. Ok, I get that, and I don’t possess any tin-foil hats. BUT, if you own you, why give up the right? Each of us own the right to be private. Simply giving it up for no good reason is a bad idea. All rights should be kept just in case someday you may need them.
Private lives matter.