We All Have Plenty To Hide, And That's OK

Does government surveillance matter if you're not doing anything illegal? It's a tricky question that privacy advocate Jay Stanley has studied for years. He breaks down why privacy matters, even if you have "nothing to hide".

Photo remixed from Ilin Sergey (Shutterstock).

A commenter on a recent post about the [US] DEA installing licence plate scanners on the nation's interstate highways asks: "If you aren't doing anything illegal why would you care if someone captures your licence plate number?"

Another commenter countered: "If I'm not doing anything illegal, why do the police need to record my licence plate number?"

It's a great response. In essence, it points to our civilisation's core principle that the government is not supposed to look over our shoulder unless it has particularised suspicion that we are involved in wrongdoing.

But the original poster's point is a frequent refrain: "Why should I care about surveillance if I have nothing to hide?" As a privacy advocate I have heard this question for many years, and over time developed my own list of answers, aided by the sharp thinking of others who have grappled with this question, such as Dan Solove and Bruce Schneier.

Here are the answers to this question that I have settled upon over time:

  1. Some people do have something to hide, but not something that the government ought to gain the power to reveal. People hide many things from even their closest friends and family: the fact that they are gay, the fact that they are sick, the fact that they are pregnant, the fact that they are in love with someone else. Though your private life may be especially straightforward, that should not lead you to support policies that would intrude on the more complicated lives of others. There's a reason we call it private life.
  2. You may not have anything to hide, but the government may think you do. One word: errors. If we allow the government to start looking over our shoulders just in case we might be involved in wrongdoing,mistakes will be made. You may not think you have anything to hide, but still might end up in the crosshairs of a government investigation, or entered into some government database, or worse. The experience with terrorist watch lists over the past 10 years has shown that the government is highly prone to errors, and tends to be sloppily over-inclusive in those it decides to flag as possibly dangerous.
  3. Are you sure you have nothing to hide? There are a lot of laws on the books of different nations — a lot of very complicated laws on the books -0 and prosecutors and the police have a lot of discretion to interpret those laws. And if they decide to declare you public enemy #1, and they have the ability to go through your life with a fine-tooth comb because your privacy has been destroyed, they will find something you'll wish you could hide. Why might the government go after you? The answers can involve muddy combinations of things such as abuse of power, mindless bureaucratic prosecutorial careerism, and political retaliation. On this point a quotation attributed to Cardinal Richelieu is often invoked: "Give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, and I'll find something in them to hang him by."
  4. Everybody hides many things even though they're not wrong. The ultimate example is the fact that most people don't want to be seen naked in public. Nudity also makes a good metaphor for a whole category of privacy concerns: just because we want to keep things private doesn't mean we've done anything wrong. And, it can be hard to give rational reasons why we feel that way — even those of us who feel most comfortable with our bodies. True, some people may be perfectly happy posting nude pictures of themselves online, but other people do not like to show even a bare ankle — and they should have that right. In the same way, there may not be anything particularly embarrassing about other details of our lives-but they are our details. The list of all the groceries you have purchased in the past year may contain nothing damaging, but you might not want a stranger looking over that either, because of that same difficult-to-articulate feeling that it would just be, somehow, invasive, and none of their damned business. As Bruce Schneier aptly sums it up: "we do nothing wrong when we sing in the shower."
  5. You may not care about hiding it, but you may still be discriminated against because of it. As I discussed recently in this post about data mining, people are often denied benefits or given worse deals because some company decides that some behavior — entirely innocent and legal — might suggest you are a poor risk. For example, credit card companies sometimes lower a customer's credit limit based on the repayment history of the other customers of stores where a person shops.
  6. Privacy is about much broader values than just "hiding things". Although many people will want more specific answers to the question such as the above, ultimately the fullest retort to the "nothing to hide" impulse is a richer philosophical defence of privacy that articulates its importance to human life — the human need for a refuge from the eye of the community, and from the self-monitoring that living with others entails; the need for space in which to play and to try out new ideas, identities and behaviours, without lasting consequences; and the importance of maintaining the balance of power between individuals and the state.

Plenty to Hide [ACLU]

Jay Stanley is a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union and editor of the ACLU's "Free Future" blog.


    Excellent article, first time I've heard it put so succinctly.
    Cameras should be allowed in city centers, train stations etc. but cities like London have you under scrutiny everywhere. We really don't need that kind of overlord mindset.

    If you think you have nothing to hide... then please feel free to email everyone you know the details of your bank account number and online banking password(s).

    For the most part, in my experience, the average hacker has far more moral principles than your average government worker. So why bother with malware scans, or firewalls? After all, you've got "nothing to hide".

    Very well argued. As someone firmly in the "I have nothing to hide" camp it is interesting to hear it argued from a perspective other than the traditional shouting from rooftops "invasion of privacy! Next step police state!" argument.

    Whilst I'm still a supporter of targeted advertising as both the company and consumer can benefit (more effective advertising dollars vs finding a better product or service) I am slowly getting swayed towards locking down my online footprint and drawing lines to data sharing. Unfortunately due to the sheer number of websites and emails Gen Y seem to accumulate doing a full wipe would be virtually (pardon the pun) impossible.

    Brilliant piece of work. Seems to me that. Government works to change our tollerance to what privacy means. It is a basic right. It is what we don't know they do to diminish my privacy that concerns me. Little things like being able to track me "somehow"... Think phones, or mall cameras with facial reconision. It should not be a case of "I have nothing to hide". It should be if 98% of us are of no interest, the solution to track all, is a poor solution to live with. If everything has a value, why is my privacy devalued ? When was my basic right to live freely been compromised - and why should I accept that this is OK ? I don't .

    it may be worth asking the question as well - "what does the government have to hide?", and "how can we keep them accountable to 'we, the people'?".

      I'll give my info to them if they give theirs to me. I feel like I'd come out on top :)

    There are other simpler reasons for privacy - such as respecting an individual's desire to keep personal information to themselves, and only share it with people of their choice. Or you could say its an individual's 'right' to keep personal information private. The caveat, of course, is providing they aren't breaking the law.

    These reasons aren't about hiding anything, they are about controlling who has access to our personal information, and preventing others from accessing it without our knowledge or permission.

    I always hear people say "If youre not doing anything wrong then you have nothing to worry about."
    I say to them "If Im not doing anything wrong then why am I being watched, tracked and monitored like a criminal?"

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