Nothing to Hide Argument

the lives of others

Cardinal Richelieu

The nothing to hide argument broadly states that police surveillance is only adverse to those doing something wrong. By this line of reasoning, government data mining and surveillance programs do not threaten privacy unless they uncover illegal activities, and if they do, the guilty person does not have the right to keep them private. The motto ‘If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’ was used to advertise closed-circuit television programs in the UK.

Geoffrey Stone, a legal scholar, said that the use of the argument is ‘all-too-common.’ Cryptographer Bruce Schneier described it as the ‘most common retort against privacy advocates.’ He cites French statesman Cardinal Richelieu’s statement ‘If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged,’ to describe how a state government can find aspects in a person’s life in order to prosecute, defame, or blackmail that individual. Schneier also argued ‘Too many wrongly characterize the debate as ‘security versus privacy.’ The real choice is liberty versus control.’

Law professor and privacy expert Daniel J. Solove stated in an article for the ‘The Chronicle of Higher Education’ that he opposes the argument; he stated that a government can leak information about a person and cause damage to that person, or use information about a person to deny access to services even if a person did not actually engage in wrongdoing, and that a government can cause damage to one’s personal life through making errors. Solove wrote ‘When engaged directly, the nothing-to-hide argument can ensnare, for it forces the debate to focus on its narrow understanding of privacy. But when confronted with the plurality of privacy problems implicated by government data collection and use beyond surveillance and disclosure, the nothing-to-hide argument, in the end, has nothing to say.’

Colin J. Bennett, author of ‘The Privacy Advocates,’ said that an advocate of privacy often ‘has to constantly refute’ the argument. Bennett explained that most people ‘go through their daily lives believing that surveillance processes are not directed at them, but at the miscreants and wrongdoers’ and that ‘the dominant orientation is that mechanisms of surveillance are directed at others’ despite ‘evidence that the monitoring of individual behavior has become routine and everyday.’ An ethnographic study by Ana Viseu, Andrew Clement, and Jane Aspinal of the integration of online services into everyday life was published as ‘Situating Privacy Online: Complex Perceptions and Everyday Practices’ in the ‘Information, Communication & Society’ journal in 2004. It found that, in the words of Kirsty Best, author of ‘Living in the control society Surveillance, users and digital screen technologies,’ ‘fully employed, middle to middle-upper income earners articulated similar beliefs about not being targeted for surveillance’ compared to other respondents who did not show concern, and that ‘In these cases, respondents expressed the view that they were not doing anything wrong, or that they had nothing to hide.’

A qualitative study conducted for UK around 2003 presented four outlooks on privacy risks with a mapping of eight frames to show privacy attitude distributions; men who were self-employed initially used the ‘nothing to hide’ argument before shifting to an argument in which they perceived data mining to be a nuisance instead of a threat. Viseu, et al. said that the argument ‘has been well documented in the privacy literature as a stumbling block to the development of pragmatic privacy protection strategies, and it, too, is related to the ambiguous and symbolic nature of the term ‘privacy’’ itself.’ They explained that privacy is an abstract concept and people only become concerned with it once their privacy is gone, and they compare a loss to privacy with people knowing that ozone depletion and global warming are negative developments but that ‘the immediate gains of driving the car to work or putting on hairspray outweigh the often invisible losses of polluting the environment.’

When discussing the MAINWAY program in 2006 (a database maintained by the NSA containing metadata for hundreds of billions of telephone calls), former U.S. Senate majority leader Trent Lott stated ‘What are people worried about? What is the problem? Are you doing something you’re not supposed to?’ (Lott had resigned from the Senate four years earlier, after a scandal related to statements he made in defense of racial segregation.) In late 2009, Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, said ‘If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place, but if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time, and it’s important, for example that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities.’

Adam D. Moore, author of ‘Privacy Rights: Moral and Legal Foundations,’ argued ‘it is the view that rights are resistant to cost/benefit or consequentialist sort of arguments. Here we are rejecting the view that privacy interests are the sorts of things that can be traded for security.’ He also stated that surveillance can disproportionately affect certain groups in society based on appearance, ethnicity, and religion. Moore maintains that there are at least three other problems with the ‘nothing to hide’ argument. First, if individuals have privacy rights, then invoking ‘nothing to hide’ is irrelevant. Privacy, understood as a right to control access to and uses of spaces, locations, and personal information, means that it is the right holder who determines access. To drive this point home Moore offers the following case: ‘Imagine upon exiting your house one day you find a person searching through your trash painstakingly putting the shredded notes and documents back together. In response to your stunned silence he proclaims ‘you don’t have anything to worry about – there is no reason to hide is there?’

Second, individuals may wish to hide embarrassing behavior or conduct not accepted by the dominant culture. ‘Consider someone’s sexual or medical history. Imagine someone visiting a library to learn about alternative lifestyles not accepted by the majority.’ Finally, Moore argues that ‘nothing to hide,’ if taken seriously, could be used against government agents, politicians, and CEO’s. This is to turn the ‘nothing to hide’ argument on its head. Moore argues that the NSA agent, politician, police chief, and CEO have nothing to hide so they should embrace total transparency like the rest of us. ‘But they don’t and when given the technological tools to watch, the politician, police chief, or CEO are almost always convinced that watching others is a good thing.’

One Comment to “Nothing to Hide Argument”

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