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Nothing to hide..?

On several occasions I have had to explain my position on privacy and surveillance (especially in a digital context). To save me the task of repeating myself, here it is in as simple a form as possible.

"If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" is a common argument in support of the mass surveillance of citizens by the government or the harvesting of user data by private corporations. Often it is made in a reassuring manner, as demonstrated by William Hague:

A common re-statement of the argument goes, "only if you're doing something wrong should you worry, and then you don't deserve to keep it private".

I'm guessing many people will immediately sympathise with these sentiments. After all, we don't want the bad guys to gain the upper hand, you're probably a fine upstanding citizen and we should be happy that innocents are protected from the evil-doers that such a drag net will identify.

I beg to differ.

For a start, this position is a classic false dichotomy: two seemingly black and white choices are given yet there are many ways to address the subject. Such either/or thinking excludes the potential for a more nuanced and subtle debate. Furthermore, such false dichotomies are a favourite tactic in argument and, unless you know what you're looking for, can hoodwink many who take things at face value and stifle debate.

Leaving this aside, the actual choices presented in the argument hide various nasty "home truths":

  • It's not you who determines if you have anything to hide. It doesn't matter how upstanding a citizen you think you are; your point of view doesn't matter in this context since it's the law or (more dangerously) public opinion that judges you (viz. misjudged attacks on paediatricians). For example, teenagers growing up in the Eastern Bloc had to hide their enjoyment of "corrupting capitalist music" (such as Rock and Roll). While one's taste in music is a relatively harmless attribute please consider the plight of LGBT persons living in Singapore and elsewhere who risk legal challenges and remember the many curtailments of religious freedoms throughout history.
  • It assumes surveillance results in correct data and sound judgement. People make mistakes and sometimes agents of the state or employees of corporations are really stupid and don't act in the public or customer's interest. For example, remember the Twitter joke trial? Given the context of the tweet it was obviously a joke, but the Police interpreted it differently. Is demonstrating a sense of humour a crime? I'd argue it's a healthy sign of a liberal tradition of free speech.
  • Rules change. For example, the UK's RIPA law gives the government powers to investigate and intercept communications on the grounds of national security. Sounds reasonable. Yet the number of public authorities empowered to use this legislation has increased four times (in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2010) and many such bodies use their powers for totally unintended things (such as tracking dog fouling). The result is supposedly water-tight legislation being subverted by local councils (I hardly think dog shit is an issue of national security).
  • Breaking the law isn't necessarily bad. Mohandas Ghandi, Emmeline Pankhurst, Jesus, Nelson Mandela, Socrates, and [insert any well known and well respected historical person who many believe have been a beacon of hope, progress and morality] all broke the law. The law is often an Ass and breaking it is often the only way in which "progress" is made. Imagine how such persons and the causes they represent would have thrived in a digital panopticon. (They wouldn't.)
  • Those who say privacy is dead are the ones that gain the most from surveillance. This one's rather obvious but worth re-stating. Perhaps I'm being cynical, but when the CEOs of Facebook and Google both state privacy is dead you've got to wonder if this has something to do with their business interests (where they sell your data through targeted advertising).
  • Privacy is a fundamental human right. Yes, I realise this is an argument from authority - specifically, the UN's universal declaration of human rights - but I believe (and I'm guessing you do too) that intimate declarations of love, doctors discussing a patient, engineers developing a new top secret world changing product and journalists planning an expos√© of government corruption are just a few scenarios where privacy is both a reasonable and legitimate requirement.

Am I suggesting privacy trumps all? No. I would strongly argue for openness when it comes to public institutions, the machinations of government, our political representatives and corporations that deal with personal data. How else are we to hold such entities to account?

Am I saying there should be no surveillance? Of course not, that would be silly: I can think of plenty of legitimate reasons for surveillance but none of them legitimise the blanket surveillance of everyone. Furthermore, I'm not the only one who believes this:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Yes, I know, the irony isn't lost on me either.

This article was written in haste over lunch and tidied up after work. Think of it as a first draft and please feel free to take pot shots - I welcome constructive comments, critique and ideas. ;-)


A detective I know has pointed out that,

Ripa isn't (and never was) just for national security, that is only one part of the act.

I stand corrected! :-)

I was trying to demonstrate how laws can suffer from "scope creep": once legitimate and sensible legislation being used in quite unintended and nefarious ways. My detective buddy (who also happens to have a philosophy degree and is exactly the sort of ethical, thoughtful and smart person you'd hope would be working as a detective) understood exactly what I was getting at so pointed out that,

Law creep might be better with terrorism stop and search powers where more people are stopped and searched without any actual individual justification. That seems a more clean cut issue to my mind; specific powers being used to blanket cover areas. Or laws set up to manage serious sex offenders also catching idiots - the guy who drops his trousers while drunk on a night out in town now has to notify any change of address and register as a sex offender!

Great stuff!