This article is aimed at those of you who say you have nothing to hide. We’ve written it because it’s the most common argument from people indifferent about mass surveillance – or who even advocate it. The long version of the expression goes ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’, and it’s been reeled off by authorities for a hundred years. And slightly remixed versions have also been used by the commercial mass surveillance companies. By Mark Zuckerberg and by Google’s former CEO Eric Smith, who said: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”.
To start with, this is a phrase that sounds very different depending on what country you’re in. In many places in the world, there are large numbers of people who actually do have something to hide. Like investigative journalists persecuted in authoritarian countries. Like homosexuals in countries where it’s forbidden. Like political opponents monitored by totalitarian states. Like women looking for an abortion in states that have made it illegal. Like people living under protected identities and who don’t want to risk their true identity leaking out.
‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ is also a fallacy in so many other ways. Using this kind of reasoning, business secrets could be revealed every day. Sensitive health data could be made public at any time. Private images and conversations could suddenly become someone else’s concern.
But above all, it’s actually about the fact that we all have something to hide: our private life, which is nobody else’s business, provided you aren’t suspected of a crime and an independent, free and democratic court has issued an order stating that proportional surveillance is warranted. But in every other case, you should actually turn this around: if people have nothing to hide – why are they being subject to mass surveillance at all?
From politicians and authorities, the expression often comes with a supplement: “To keep us all safe, we must relinquish a little of our privacy”. But as Benjamin Franklin once said: “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”. Or as American cryptographer and security expert Bruce Schneier describes it:
“Too many wrongly characterize the debate as ‘security versus privacy’. The real choice is liberty versus control. Liberty requires security without intrusion, security plus privacy. Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state. And that’s why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide.”
Bruce Schneier is onto something important: a state should have absolute power. He also gives us two essential reminders and an equally important question: Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. And who watches the watchers?
“You don’t need to say why you want to be left alone by the state. It is the natural state of being that we are allowed in a free society to be free. If they want to restrict and monitor our activities it really changes the nature of human society.”
When you say you have nothing to hide, you’re making a bet that you never will have in a system that changes but never forgets.
The foundation of a democratic society is that its citizens have the right to personal privacy. But let’s say that you still think mass surveillance is okay, because ‘you have nothing to hide’. The problem with ‘nothing to hide’ is that it’s not an unchanging status. Just ask the women living in US states who thought they had nothing to hide – until the law was changed overnight and it was no longer legal for them to have an abortion.
Glenn Greenwald was one of the journalists who helped Edward Snowden get the word out. In a Ted talk entitled Why Privacy Matters, he illustrated how mass surveillance takes no account either of changes in those in power or those being monitored.
“When you say, ‘somebody who is doing bad things’, you probably mean things like plotting a terrorist attack or engaging in violent criminality. A much narrower conception of what people who wield power mean when they say ‘doing bad things’. There’s an implicit bargain that people who accept this mindset have accepted, and that bargain is this: if you’re willing to render yourself sufficiently harmless, sufficiently unthreatening to those who wield political power, then and only then can you be freed of the dangers of surveillance. It’s only those who are dissidents, who challenge power, who have something to worry about. There all kinds of reasons why we should want to avoid that lesson as well. You may be a person who, right now, doesn’t want to engage in that behavior, but at some point in the future you might. Even if you’re somebody who decides that you never want to, the fact that there are other people who are willing to and able to resist and be adversarial to those in power – dissidents and journalists and activists and a whole range of others – is something that brings us all collective good that we should want to preserve.”
Saying that you don't care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don't care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say._ _Or that you don't care about freedom of the press because you don't like to read.
Edward Snowden, in a conversation organized by the Tor Project:
“This kind of tracking and tracing of human populations at scale will ultimately lead… You’re not going to feel the consequences of it today. When we’re talking about the internet, when we’re talking about surveillance, we are talking about power. They’re not spying on our records, they’re not monitoring your traffic because it’s interesting to them, they’re not doing this for fun. They’re not interested in data for data’s sake, you know these are not academics they’re not performing a study. They’re doing it because it provides them influence. It allows them to shape your behavior. It allows them to show you something that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen that they think you will click on, which will nudge and direct – or misdirect – your behavior, hopefully in the future. And it’s not gonna work every time. A thousand times it’s not gonna work but on that thousand and first time it will. And bit by bit they begin to control the individual, and through the individual they control the community, and through the community they influence the society. And then we are captured. And when I say you will not feel the consequences today, people go ‘I don’t care, it doesn’t matter, I’m not looking at anything interesting’. You are forgetting that when you say, you’re making yourself vulnerable to a system that never forgets. You are effectively making a bet that if you don’t matter today, if you don’t have anything interesting to say today, if you don’t have anything provocative or controversial to say, if you are not in the minority today – you never will be. But you don’t know what tomorrow looks like. You don’t know what society looks like tomorrow. These systems, governmental and corporate, are trying to create what they call ‘frictionless’ systems. What they mean by that is front-loading the joy, getting you the pictures you want, the connections that you want, those endorphin hits, the dopamine that you want. And they are back-loading the consequences. They’re hiding it, they’re concealing it. And you won’t learn about it for 5 years, for 10 years, for 20 years. But then once you do learn about it, it’s too late to unring that bell, it’s too late to protect yourself.”
Just because this or that freedom might not have meaning to you today doesn't mean that it doesn't or won't have meaning tomorrow, to you, or to your neighbor – or to the crowds of dissidents halfway across the Earth, hoping to gain just a fraction of the freedoms that my country was busily dismantling.
Ultimately, ‘I have nothing to hide’ is completely irrelevant in the discussion about mass surveillance. Because it’s not just about you. Personal privacy is a human right and there are people all over the world who don’t have the luxury of reasoning in terms of whether or not they have anything to hide, because they live under constant oppression. Fighting for privacy means fighting for them, here and now. And to make sure that everyone who doesn’t yet live under totalitarian powers won’t one day end up there. As Edward Snowden writes in his book Permanent Record:
“Because a citizenry’s freedoms are independent, to surrender your own privacy is really to surrender everyone’s. You might choose to give it about a convenience, or under the popular pretext that privacy is only required by those who have something to hide. But saying that you don’t need or want privacy because you have nothing to hide is to assume that no one should have, or could have, to hide anything – including their immigration status, unemployment history, financial history, and health records. You’re assuming that no one, including yourself, might object to revealing to anyone information about their religious beliefs, political affiliations, and sexual activities, as casually as some choose to reveal their movie and music tastes and reading preferences.
Ultimately, saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. Or that you don’t care about freedom of the press because you don’t like to read. Or that you don’t care about freedom of religion because you don’t believe in God. Or that you don’t care about the freedom to peaceably assemble because you’re a lazy, antisocial agoraphobe. Just because this or that freedom might not have meaning to you today doesn’t mean that it doesn’t or won’t have meaning tomorrow, to you, or to your neighbor – or to the crowds of principled dissidents I was following on my phone who were protesting halfway across the planet, hoping to gain just a fraction of the freedoms that my country was busily dismantling.”