In response to government surveillance or massive data gathering, many people say that there’s nothing to worry about. “I’ve got nothing to hide,” they declare. “The only people who should worry are those who are doing something immoral or illegal.”
This year is the 10th anniversary of the piece. A lot has happened between then and now. Not too long before I wrote my essay, there were revelations of illegal NSA surveillance. A significant percentage of the public supported the NSA surveillance, and the nothing-to-hide argument was trotted out again and again. This was the climate in which I wrote the essay.
Later on, in 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was engaging in extensive surveillance far beyond its legal authority. Snowden declared: “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.” This time, there was a significantly large percentage of the public that didn’t side with the NSA but instead demanded scrutiny and accountability.
Nevertheless, the nothing-to-hide argument is far from vanquished. There will always be a need for citizens to demand accountability and oversight of government surveillance, or else we will gradually slide into a more dystopian world.
Here are a few short excerpts from my nothing-to-hide essay:
I’ve long been saying that privacy need not be sacrificed for security, and it makes me delighted to see that public attitudes are aligning with this view. A Pew survey revealed that a “majority of Americans (54%) disapprove of the U.S. government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts.” The anti-NSA surveillance sentiment is even stronger in other countries, as is shown in this chart below.
According to the survey, “74% said they should not give up privacy and freedom for the sake of safety, while just 22% said the opposite.”
The debate between privacy and security has been framed incorrectly, with the tradeoff between these values understood as an all-or-nothing proposition. But protecting privacy need not be fatal to security measures; it merely demands oversight and regulation.
The Safe Harbor Arrangement has been in place since 2000, and it is a central means by which data about EU citizens can be transferred to companies in the US. Under the EU Data Protection Directive, data can only be transferred to countries with an “adequate level of protection” of personal data. The EU has not deemed the US to provide an adequate level of protection, so Safe Harbor was created as a work around.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit just issued a 97-page ruling limiting the NSA’s power to sweep up data about people’s phone calls. The case is ACLU v. Clapper, and the court held that the USA Patriot Act Section 215 doesn’t authorize the kind of sweeping collection of phone call metadata that the NSA has been engaging in. The court’s holding is limited to statutory interpretation — the scope of data collection authorized by Section 215. The court doesn’t base its holding on the Fourth Amendment, though it does note the uncertain status of current Fourth Amendment law.
The bottom line is that the NSA has been gathering a lot more data than it has been authorized to gather.