You’ve heard this statement many times over the past few years. As surveillance, tracking, and CCTV use has become almost ubiquitous in several places in the world, many people hold to the belief that they truly do not have anything to hide, so they don’t object to more and more intrusions into what was once private. This idea, however, is a dangerous one to hold.
According to the nothing to hide argument, there is no threat to privacy unless the government uncovers unlawful activity, in which case a person has no legitimate justification to claim that it remain private. The nothing to hide argument and its variants are quite prevalent, and thus are worth addressing.
Before the last century, privacy was automatic in the sense that there wasn’t a lot of technology that could intrude in your lives. Homes were much more private and spaced farther apart. There weren’t telephones to tap or computers to hack into. We had no cameras on every street corner to watch us. We didn’t worry about having nothing to hide because we could always retreat to the privacy within our own homes. Technology has changed all that.
Essentially, many people believe that, as long as it doesn’t affect them, they do not care what happens. The effect of this attitude is that losses to privacy always result in excessive limits to freedom of speech and expression. This, in turn, leads to an imbalance of power between government and its people. In the United States, this is precisely why the founding fathers put checks onto the government. It was to prevent such restrictions from happening. The problem, however, lies in the fact that complacent people do not care what happens precisely because it isn’t happening to them, thus allowing further encroachment from the government into what was once a guaranteed right.
If we give the government the power to open emails and perform warrantless wire tapping of your telephone conversations, then how are you supposed to fight back against encroaching tyranny? We have been sold a bill of goods that claims to be to fight terrorism, yet the vast majority of programs instituted by the government are security theater.
Why are vast databases, from an individual’s grocery buying habits to DNA, necessary? Again, individuals think, “I don’t care if the government knows I like Twinkies,” but they fail to realize that the government culls that information along with medical databases that can be accessed by insurance companies. No, you may not be overweight or eat poorly. You just like a Twinkie from time to time. However, an insurance company can decide you’re a risk and deny you coverage. You haven’t done anything wrong, but you’re now in a risk group because of a perceived behavior. This could also happen if you like to wear hoodies (assumed criminal) or red bandanas (assumed gang member). Law enforcement would not even have to meet you. Your shopping statistics make you a person of interest. It will be interpreted incorrectly and you will be questioned.
CCTV coverage is ineffective and a waste of resources, yet individuals are captured on it every day and put into a database that could, presumably, be connected to other databases to learn more about you.
Your right to privacy ensures that you have the ability to shut society out of certain aspects of your life. By allowing the government to make the decisions for you on matters of what is and isn’t a privacy issue, allows them to mine whatever data they want about you. If you freely give up your right to privacy in databases to allow a temporary security of an attack that is highly unlikely to happen in the first place, you cannot then be surprised when they start to massively regulate your entire life.
We live in a world full of people with bias. Humans love to gossip. Our privacy protects us from harassment by both individuals and law enforcement. Once that is gone there will be no need for evidence, suspicion will be all that’s required to ruin your life.
Cardinal Richelieu understood the value of surveillance when he famously said, “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.” Watch someone long enough, and you’ll find something to arrest — or just blackmail — with. Privacy is important because without it, surveillance information will be abused: to peep, to sell to marketers and to spy on political enemies — whoever they happen to be at the time.
For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that — either now or in the uncertain future — patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.
Privacy is not about hiding something we have done wrong. It’s about protecting our natural right to want to be left alone and be ourselves. It’s about an individual deciding who can have what piece of private information we hold dear.
When one is constantly watched, one cannot ever be natural nor can one be allowed to express themselves as they wish to be. We must remain vigilant in watching our watchers and require them to restrain themselves from turning our lives into a fearful existence of possibly doing something wrong. I have lots of things to hide. None of them are illegal. We should never give our power of privacy away because we all have something to hide and it should remain that way.
Some people who had nothing to hide:
Eliot Spitzer had something to hide, but it had nothing to do with terrorism.
And you, my dear reader, if you still have nothing to hide, can I come over and rummage through your house?
Professor Daniel J. Solove from George Washington University Law School wrote an excellent paper about this topic. I quoted it above. It’s freely available as a pdf and you should read it if you value your privacy at all.