One of the most common attitudes of those unconcerned about government surveillance or privacy invasions is “I’ve got nothing to hide.” I was talking the issue over one day with a few colleagues in my field, and we all agreed that thus far, those emphasizing the value of privacy had not been able to articulate an answer to the “nothing to hide” argument that would really register with people in the general public. In a thoughtful essay in Wired (cross posted at his blog), Bruce Schneier seeks to develop a response to this argument:
The most common retort against privacy advocates — by those in favor of ID checks, cameras, databases, data mining and other wholesale surveillance measures — is this line: “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?”
Some clever answers: “If I’m not doing anything wrong, then you have no cause to watch me.” “Because the government gets to define what’s wrong, and they keep changing the definition.” “Because you might do something wrong with my information.” My problem with quips like these — as right as they are — is that they accept the premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong. It’s not. Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect.
As a pragmatist, I’m generally unconvinced by inherent rights talk. But Schneier goes on to discuss a reason for restricting government surveillance that I do agree with — ensuring that government power is appropriately checked, monitored, and limited from potential abuse.
Another argument is that if you look hard enough at someone’s life, in the words of playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “a crime can always be found.” With the infinite tangle of criminal laws in this country, Durrenmatt’s line might belong in a work of non-fiction rather than fiction. But this response gets back to Schneier’s objection that we shouldn’t focus on privacy as protection to hide wrongdoing.
One response that I find particularly compelling is that there is a value in not having to explain and justify oneself, something that might become necessary when the government is trolling through personal data. Things that look odd might spark some speculation or negative inferences, and a person might feel the need to explain the context and background. Should people always have to be prepared to justify themselves and explain their behavior? How will one’s data trail appear to government officials judging it at a distance? What’s worse, people might never even get the opportunity to explain.
But still, the person who says “I have nothing to hide” might not be concerned about her data being misinterpreted or in having to justify herself.
Are there other good responses to the “I have nothing to hide” argument? I’m curious if anyone can articulate a compelling response that will have widespread appeal.
Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions
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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.