The line “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about” is used all too often in defending surveillance overreach. It’s been debunked countless times in the past, but with the line being trotted out frequently in response to the NSA revelations, it’s time for yet another debunking, and there are two good ones that were recently published.
By Mike Masnick | Tech Dirt
First up, we’ve got Moxie Marlinspike at Wired, who points out that, you’re wrong if you think you’ve got nothing to hide, because our criminal laws are so crazy, that anyone sifting through your data would likely be able to pin quite a few crimes on you if they just wanted to.
For instance, did you know that it is a federal crime to be in possession of a lobster under a certain size? It doesn’t matter if you bought it at a grocery store, if someone else gave it to you, if it’s dead or alive, if you found it after it died of natural causes, or even if you killed it while acting in self defense. You can go to jail because of a lobster.
If the federal government had access to every email you’ve ever written and every phone call you’ve ever made, it’s almost certain that they could find something you’ve done which violates a provision in the 27,000 pages of federal statues or 10,000 administrative regulations. You probably do have something to hide, you just don’t know it yet.
Furthermore, he points out, that one of the big reasons why laws are changed is because people realize that the laws don’t make sense for the current times — but that’s much more difficult if law enforcement is sniffing through all your data and penalizing you any time they’ve found you’ve done something wrong.
Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100% effective, such that any potential law offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed. If perfect law enforcement had been a reality in Minnesota, Colorado, and Washington since their founding in the 1850s, it seems quite unlikely that these recent changes would have ever come to pass. How could people have decided that marijuana should be legal, if nobody had ever used it? How could states decide that same sex marriage should be permitted, if nobody had ever seen or participated in a same sex relationship?
The cornerstone of liberal democracy is the notion that free speech allows us to create a marketplace of ideas, from which we can use the political process to collectively choose the society we want. Most critiques of this system tend to focus on the ways in which this marketplace of ideas isn’t totally free, such as the ways in which some actors have substantially more influence over what information is distributed than others.
Meanwhile, over at Mashable, Julian Sanchez gives a much more direct explanation for why everyone has something to hide:
Some of the potentially sensitive facts those records expose becomes obvious after giving it some thought: Who has called a substance abuse counselor, a suicide hotline, a divorce lawyer or an abortion provider? What websites do you read daily? What porn turns you on? What religious and political groups are you a member of?
Some are less obvious. Because your cellphone’s “routing information” typically includes information about the nearest cell tower, those records are also a kind of virtual map showing where you spend your time — and, when aggregated with others, who you like to spend it with.
Furthermore, he points out the elitist obnoxiousness of the claim that you shouldn’t worry about overly broad surveillance, just because you might not be a target:
However, that seems like an awfully narrow way to think about the importance of privacy. Folks don’t usually say (aloud, anyway), “I’m white, why should I care about racism?” or, “My political and religious views are too mainstream to ever be restricted, so why should I care about the First Amendment?”
We don’t say such things not only because we care about other people’s rights as well as our own happiness, but also because we understand that we benefit indirectly from living in a certain kind of society. You may not be interested in protesting, criticizing the government or debating fringe political views — but as a citizen of a democracy, subject to the laws the democratic process produces, you’re better off in a system where those things are allowed to happen.
So, yes, even if you don’t think you have something to hide, you do, and you should be concerned about the basic civil liberties and civil rights of those around you.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)