This post was originally published on December 2, 2015.
“Don’t worry; you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide.”
Ah, the well-used mantra of a Nazi or a movie villain (or both). At least, it used to be. Edward Snowden has given us tangible proof that digital cavity searches are happening constantly. Everywhere. The “nothing to hide” refrain lives on. Except now the people using it are average citizens, weary of media outrage and armed only with the desire to plod along without a fuss. “Who cares if the NSA reads our e-mails, anyway? I have nothing to fear because I have nothing to hide.”
Well, you should care. And here’s why.
‘Ignorance is bliss’ means nothing
When I lived in New Delhi, I often wondered if constant fretting about air quality was doing more damage to my mental health than the invisible pollution particles were doing to my lungs, and perhaps I’d live longer if I ignored them altogether. Maybe if I did the same to the invisible eyes and ears of the U.S. government, I’d sleep better, be more productive, have more fun.
This is what I call the “ignorance is bliss” argument. The world is a barbecue, America is a big juicy hot dog, and Snowden is your neighbor’s annoying son running over to tell you it’s actually made of pig snouts. Shut up, Edward! This hot dog is made of freedom and nobody likes you anyway.
‘We don’t like it, but it’s worth it’
A slightly less ignorant point to make would be that pig snouts, disgusting as they may be, are what make our hot dogs so delicious and we should all be thankful for it. This is what I call the “it sucks but it’s worth it” argument. No one likes to be spied on, but as NSA director Keith Alexander was quick to point out in the wake of the Snowden revelations, surreptitiously collecting phone metadata and other communications has stopped no fewer than 54 terrorist plots around the world. Never mind for a moment that this statistic has completely fallen apart under scrutiny. Even if spying programs like PRISM and xKeyScore saved only one human life, surely that’s more important than a bunch of nerds on the Internet whining about right to privacy. Right?
Sacrificing privacy for convenience isn’t just a First World Problem: Projects like Google’s Loon and Facebook’s Internet.org are already aiming to bring free Internet access to the least developed corners of the globe. These big companies can afford to launch balloons and fly solar-powered planes all over Africa and India because more data means more money. And getting a few more billion people to sign up for Google and Facebook accounts means lots and lots of data, and lots and lots of money.
But if you’re a poor Sri Lankan farmer whose child just won a university scholarship to college thanks to free online education, you probably don’t care whether or not your browsing history is being sold to advertisers or handed over to the government. After all, you have nothing to hide.
‘You can trust the NSA’
Other people with “nothing to hide” must find my portents of the death of privacy extreme and apocalyptic. Surely the definition of “something to hide” depends on who you’re hiding it from. When I send a sneaky text at a coworker’s tap dance recital confiding to a friend I think said recital is an egregious waste of time, of course I would like to keep that text private from said coworker. But do I care that some intern in a government bunker in Utah has read the text? Not as much, because I trust that person has little interest in tattling on me. I call this the “just trust us” argument.
Life is full of trusted authorities who breach our beloved privacy. The teller at my bank could ruin me financially. My doctor could tell my friends what my genitals look like. A TSA agent, if he or she so desired, could publish on the Internet a comprehensive list of items found in my suitcase pre- and post-Vegas bachelor party weekend. I don’t lose sleep over these things because I have faith in the layers upon layers of confidentiality agreements and hiring practices that ensure these authorities are trustworthy enough to hold their jobs in the first place. Why should NSA employees be any different?
Privacy is a two-way street
And why should government employees be held to a different standard of privacy than the rest of us? That was the question Twitter was forced to answer in August 2015 when it shut down Politwoops, the popular website that automatically republished any tweet that a politician attempted to delete, an algorithmic application of the Streisand effect. Though journalists bemoaned the sudden loss of a powerful tool for transparency in government, in its own defense Twitter appealed to a universal standard of privacy…
“Imagine how nerve-racking—terrifying, even—tweeting would be if it was immutable and irrevocable? No one user is more deserving of that ability than another. Indeed, deleting a tweet is an expression of the user’s voice.”
I call this the “two-way street” argument: that both people and governments have the right to secrecy. If we care about the right to privacy so much then why should we complain when the government censors itself?
Utopia is a glass house and a film crew
Or conversely, if we don’t want the government to hide things from us, then shouldn’t we start by setting a good example? The poster child for that argument would have been Noah Dyer, self-professed anti-privacy activist. In his Kickstarter campaign, Noah asked the world to help him fund a camera crew to turn his life into The Truman Show, during which he would have every minute detail of his life filmed and broadcast to the Internet to prove that life isn’t just livable under constant surveillance, it’s better. It’s an extreme viewpoint, but Noah does seem sincere in his proposal video, where he rails against the hypocrisy of privacy advocates:
“The same logic that allows you to burp, fart, pig out, have an affair or anything like that in the privacy of your own home allows your government representatives to have secret meetings where they can buy and sell votes and political favors.”
Dyer’s accusation is radical but strangely compelling. Imagine an overweight child at the local pool, keeping his shirt on out of shame. Do we not rejoice when he finally learns to conquer that shame and cannonball into the water sans shirt? Shouldn’t we all live like that? Steve Jobs hinted at this ideal in his graduation speech to the Stanford Class of 2005: “You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” Maybe the nudists were right all along. Ergo, last one to strip loses!
Your life. Your rules. Your right to be ignored.
Wait! No! No, no no no! Everyone keep your clothes on. Or don’t! Whatever you want; that’s the point.
Just because one person is brave enough to be naked on camera (literally or figuratively), doesn’t mean we all should. But that’s what Noah’s project would have needed. Not just his own shamelessness, but the shamelessness of everyone around him. If his “Year Without Privacy” had succeeded, how many of Noah’s family members would have wanted to share something meaningful with him that year? How many social gatherings would he have been invited to? How many dates would he have had? The tumbleweeds rolling through his tragically underfunded Kickstarter campaign suggest Noah’s year would have been a lonely one.
While I don’t deny transparency in government would benefit greatly if everyone had their own 24/7 TV channel broadcast to the world, something tells me the “corrupt government meeting” channel wouldn’t get as much attention as the “normal people in their bedrooms” channel. In fact, I think the constant distraction would make it even easier for politicians to get away with lying and bribing their way to power, because they could do it in plain sight. So long as they did it with their clothes on, they’d always be less interesting than whatever the neighbors are doing.
A utopian anti-privacy super-society like the one Noah described may well be the future of the human race, but if it is then let’s get there gradually, when we all opt in, and no sooner. In the meantime, if you’re the type of person who does enjoy putting your life on display then go nuts; there’s already an app for that.
Nothing to hide? Your future bets otherwise.
Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
That’s part of the U.S. Miranda rights, and applies to everything you say after you get arrested. As this video explains quite thoroughly, even the innocent have been found guilty by their own well-meaning testimony. But in the dystopian not-so-distant future world where the government can turn your smartphone into a microphone, law enforcement will already have access to everything you say before you get arrested. Formerly private confessions, however minor, friendly, even joking, could be used as evidence to convict you of a real crime, even future ones.
This is for everyone
“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
Every time a law is changed it’s because a critical mass of people dared to break the law and we found breaking it to be more beneficial than following it. Homosexuality used to be something to hide throughout America, and is in many places still punishable as a crime. We should consider ourselves lucky that gay rights evolved slightly faster than modern surveillance technology, otherwise it’s unlikely that any American would dare even admit to being gay anywhere within range of a smartphone microphone, let alone lobby publicly for the right to marry.
Mass surveillance threatens us all by accelerating the detection of crime to dangerous, algorithmic speeds. We want justice to be swift, but not so swift as to bypass critical thought. Having “something to hide” from the authorities sometimes results in great things for humanity.