You May Have 'Nothing to Hide' But You Still Have Something to Fear

This post was first published on MSNBC.com.

In the wake of recent news that the NSA is spying on Americans, I have been particularly struck by the argument that "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear."

At first blush, this argument might seem sound – after all, if the government is merely conducting anti-terrorism surveillance, non-terrorists shouldn't be affected, right? But if you look more closely, you'll see this idea is full of holes.

The "nothing to hide" argument mistakenly suggests that privacy is something only criminals desire. In fact, we choose to do many things in private – sing in the shower, make love, confide in family and friends – even though they are not wrong or illegal. Who would not be embarrassed if all of their most intimate details were exposed? Fences and curtains are ways to ensure a measure of privacy, not indicators of criminal behavior. Privacy is a fundamental part of a dignified life.

The "nothing to hide" argument also has things backwards when it suggests that we are all worthy of suspicion until proven otherwise. Our system of justice treats us all as innocent until proven guilty. That applies in everyday life – when the government wants to spy on our daily activities and private conversations – as much as it applies in court. The state bears the burden of showing there is a good reason for suspicion, not the other way around. The refrain "nothing to hide" should not be a license for sweeping government surveillance.

Even if you think you have nothing to hide, you may indeed have something to fear. You might fear for yourself. As Kafka so chillingly illustrates in "The Trial," the prospect of unwarranted government pursuit is terrifying. Or you might fear for our society. Living under the constant gaze of government surveillance can produce long-lasting social harm: if citizens are just a little more fearful, a little less likely to freely associate, a little less likely to dissent – the aggregate chilling effect can close what was once an open society.

Government surveillance can also have a direct harm on others – think of human rights workers or journalists who must work with people who fear government scrutiny, not because of wrongdoing but for political reasons. Imagine a liberal group arguing that in the wake of the recent IRS scandal, it has nothing to fear because the IRS is interested only in conservative groups. This argument would be myopic, missing the wider risks of government overreaching. (Need proof? The IRS has now admitted that it scrutinized liberal groups, too.)

Perhaps you remain unconvinced. You are sure that you have nothing to hide and you never will. You think my concerns about chilled speech and democratic accountability are overblown, and you think privacy concerns are exaggerated and unlikely to affect you or our society in any case.

But – and this is the biggest hole in the "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" argument – how can you know for sure?

In fact, you have no idea if you have something to fear or not, because you do not know what the government does with the data it collects. If the government keeps secret what it is collecting about you or why, you cannot correct potential errors. And if you know anything about our justice system, you know that errors are common. Transparency is partly about making sure the government's actions – its outputs – can be evaluated; but transparency is also about making sure the government's information – its inputs – is accurate.

When the government operates in secret, it is hard to know anything with confidence. There is, however, one thing you can say with 100% confidence: we need to know more.

We need to know more about what information the government is collecting about millions of innocent Americans. We need to know more about the secret legal interpretations that the government is relying on to monitor our communications. And we need to know more about what the government does with the trillions of bits of electronic data it is amassing in its files. We need these answers because, even if we have nothing to hide, that does not mean we want to live in a society where nothing is private.

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Mrunalini Chinn...

Wanting to know what and why surveillance is used for does not stop the surveillance that could be the result of misused patriot act and misinterpreted laws that are breaching the freedom . The agencies that abuse surveillance are accountable for any acts committed by people while they are terrorized with surveillance.

Protonius

To those who believe that "If I have nothing to hide, there is "nothing to fear", I offer the following thoughts:

IMO:

Imagine that you are -- in your own view, and maybe also in the view of many other respectable principled persons -- the most honest, upstanding, wonderful human being that ever walked the face of the Earth. You are at peace with yourself. And so there you stand, under a gorgeous summer sun, amidst the verdant green and brilliantly-hued flowers that line the shore of the placid rich-turquoise-blue lake before you, as you just let this wondrous moment of life refresh your spirit, and you think to yourself, "Life is good!".

Now imagine that someone, some agency -- whom you have never seen or had any dealings with and whom you can't imagine why they would have any interest in you -- possesses AND UTILIZES a host of nearly-unimaginably vast (and clandestine) resources -- resources that are all functioning at full-force and becoming more technologically-sophisticated by the second -- to secretly observe, listen to, tap into, track, record, mine, collate, analyze, transmit elsewhere, and USE AS THEY WILL, just about every scintilla of information about you -- including what you say, what you write, what you communicate, what you research, whom you communicate with, what they communicate to you, where you go, when you do whatever it is that you do -- and more --, data that covers whatever information is yet traceable from the instant you were born (and possibly even including whatever records relative to your personal heritage are available as well), through to the very moment of the present, and even projecting -- based on "predictive" trends observed in that data -- what you MOST PROBABLY will do as your future unfolds.

"Total awareness". Or, put another way: shades of "Minority Report".

This is the mysterious, proverbial, giant, hungry, serpent lurking in the lake, somewhere just beneath the water's surface. Yet as you begin to notice the ripples moving across the water, you go against your instinctively better judgement, and pass the water's movement off as "just a trick of the wind".

That there IS no wind, doesn't seem to enter your mind.

Now ALSO imagine that that person, that agency, has its OWN way of looking at things, its OWN interests, its OWN motivations -- any of which may be extremely different from YOUR views and principles and motivations.

That's where the serpent -- now swimming toward you ever more rapidly -- starts raising its mighty head just above the water, and, its eyes gleaming with sinister intent, opens its jaw wide, its fangs glistening in the sunlight. But do you see it, or are you instead smilingly and absentmindedly enamored by the beauty of the flowers at your feet?

Has the serpent thought about who you are, or how good and principled a person you may be? Or does it perhaps have another set of thoughts, emotions, driving-forces, in mind, as it chooses to propel itself yet more rapidly in your direction?

Translation: What makes you think that, in the real-world political example that I've been describing, that that person, that agency, won't at any moment become, or has not already become -- and for whatever its reasons -- a threat to your freedoms and to your taken-for-granted personally peaceable way of life?

This is not necessarily to say that that person or agency does or does not have any "malice aforethought", as they tap into and utilize their vast (and ever-increasing) storehouse of information about you. For all you know, they may have no personal interest in you "per se" at all, but, somewhere along the line, you just "happened" to fall into their "cross-hairs". And perhaps that eventuality had nothing to do with ANYTHING that you did or could have or didn't do or shouldn't have done -- i.e, you had ZERO control over this eventuality. But either way, you suddenly are in their sights; and so what might THAT eventuality mean to you?

Will the serpent, principled in its own way, gently close its jaws, soften its gaze, and peacefully turn and swim away? Can you BEFRIEND the serpent? Is the serpent actually a misjudged "savior in disguise", which, as it surprisingly whispers to you (and perhaps asks you to "lean a bit closer so you can better hear"), suggests that its mission is actually to PROTECT YOU from other "more potent" dangers lurking in the waters?

How do YOU think that this parable should -- or might -- proceed?

Protonius

To those who believe that "If I have nothing to hide, there is "nothing to fear", I offer the following thoughts:

IMO:

Imagine that you are -- in your own view, and maybe also in the view of many other respectable principled persons -- the most honest, upstanding, wonderful human being that ever walked the face of the Earth. You are at peace with yourself. And so there you stand, under a gorgeous summer sun, amidst the verdant green and brilliantly-hued flowers that line the shore of the placid rich-turquoise-blue lake before you, as you just let this wondrous moment of life refresh your spirit, and you think to yourself, "Life is good!".

Now imagine that someone, some agency -- whom you have never seen or had any dealings with and whom you can't imagine why they would have any interest in you -- possesses AND UTILIZES a host of nearly-unimaginably vast (and clandestine) resources -- resources that are all functioning at full-force and becoming more technologically-sophisticated by the second -- to secretly observe, listen to, tap into, track, record, mine, collate, analyze, transmit elsewhere, and USE AS THEY WILL, just about every scintilla of information about you -- including what you say, what you write, what you communicate, what you research, whom you communicate with, what they communicate to you, where you go, when you do whatever it is that you do -- and more --, data that covers whatever information is yet traceable from the instant you were born (and possibly even including whatever records relative to your personal heritage are available as well), through to the very moment of the present, and even projecting -- based on "predictive" trends observed in that data -- what you MOST PROBABLY will do as your future unfolds.

"Total awareness". Or, put another way: shades of "Minority Report".

This is the mysterious, proverbial, giant, hungry, serpent lurking in the lake, somewhere just beneath the water's surface. Yet as you begin to notice the ripples moving across the water, you go against your instinctively better judgement, and pass the water's movement off as "just a trick of the wind".

That there IS no wind, doesn't seem to enter your mind.

Now ALSO imagine that that person, that agency, has its OWN way of looking at things, its OWN interests, its OWN motivations -- any of which may be extremely different from YOUR views and principles and motivations.

That's where the serpent -- now swimming toward you ever more rapidly -- starts raising its mighty head just above the water, and, its eyes gleaming with sinister intent, opens its jaw wide, its fangs glistening in the sunlight. But do you see it, or are you instead smilingly and absentmindedly enamored by the beauty of the flowers at your feet?

Has the serpent thought about who you are, or how good and principled a person you may be? Or does it perhaps have another set of thoughts, emotions, driving-forces, in mind, as it chooses to propel itself yet more rapidly in your direction?

Translation: What makes you think that, in the real-world political example that I've been describing, that that person, that agency, won't at any moment become, or has not already become -- and for whatever its reasons -- a threat to your freedoms and to your taken-for-granted personally peaceable way of life?

This is not necessarily to say that that person or agency does or does not have any "malice aforethought", as they tap into and utilize their vast (and ever-increasing) storehouse of information about you. For all you know, they may have no personal interest in you "per se" at all, but, somewhere along the line, you just "happened" to fall into their "cross-hairs". And perhaps that eventuality had nothing to do with ANYTHING that you did or could have or didn't do or shouldn't have done -- i.e, you had ZERO control over this eventuality. But either way, you suddenly are in their sights; and so what might THAT eventuality mean to you?

Will the serpent, principled in its own way, gently close its jaws, soften its gaze, and peacefully turn and swim away? Can you BEFRIEND the serpent? Is the serpent actually a misjudged "savior in disguise", which, as it surprisingly whispers to you (and perhaps asks you to "lean a bit closer so you can better hear"), suggests that its mission is actually to PROTECT YOU from other "more potent" dangers lurking in the waters?

How do YOU think that this parable should -- or might -- proceed?

A Law Abiding C...

Today I was trying to wire transfer some money to my account in India so I could use it in India when I go there next. The bank gave me a goo around for a while and eventually I got transferred to a person on phone who seemed actually not be a bank person but possibly an NSA operator. Under the guise of helping me with transferring the money he was recording every stroke and asked me for every detail regarding where I was transferring the money to.

While I can appreciate the need to be vigilant but this is clearly going beyond the line. I am transferring my own money, all earned in wages etc to my own account in another bank and I have NSA recording my every move.

Today I got a first hand experience of how it feels to be interrogated by NSA without any cause and without any valid reason!

Anonymous

There was a period, not so long ago, when people right and left were accused of being communists. I remember hearing of a man who'd been accused of attending communist meetings on several specific dates. Now, it's hard enough to remember what you did on some evening several weeks ago, much less prove it. But this fellow did remember that on one of those dates, he was staying at Thunderbird Lodge, far from where the (alleged) meeting had taken place. He went up there to look at the guest book. "Surprisingly", exactly that page had been ripped out. Proving your innocence can be impossible.

A woman I knew was restricted to stay within the county for years. The restriction was eventually lifted, but she was not informed of that. Luckily (wisely) she'd made a habit of inquiring once a year. Finally, about 1970, she went downtown to inquire and, yes, her file had been moved and she now could travel to her home country and meet the people who were still alive there. Why had she been punished? Her husband was (most likely) a communist but born in the USA. It was easiest to punish his wife.

There wasn't much logic to the accusations nor the penalties. But fear and apprehension were wide-spread. "Do I dare associate myself with this acquaintance?" And the files remained active long after the active witch hunt was over. Some people could never be bonded nor get secret/top secret clearance.

There is no guarantee that such things won't ever happen again! "Nothing to fear" is naive! Thank you, ACLU, for the above article.

Anonymous

Here is a chilling scenario. Person A is aware of corruption or abuse in government and starts to make waves. Someone with influence in government fights back. Person A's text and email communications are scrutinized and 5 or 6 suspicious messages are found out of the 20,000 or so scrutinized. Person A does not even remember the background or context of these particular items. Even worse, how can we be sure that no one has altered this data? Because we believe the emails are collected by the feds, everyone just assumes that they haven't been tampered with, and that anything that the government says is true about what people email or text.

Let's take this a little further... Suppose that to silence person A, someone in the government accuses person A of being complicit with terrorism or drug dealing and uses current laws to freeze person A's bank accounts and credit cards. Person A will now struggle so hard to keep his/her family fed and clothed, he/she will not have time to fight government corruption. Political opponents could be silenced. Can anyone assure me that this could not happen, that we are not going down that road?

Anonymous

Ain't feelin' it ...

Quote: "You might fear for yourself. As Kafka so chillingly illustrates in "The Trial," the prospect of unwarranted government pursuit is terrifying. Or you might fear for our society. Living under the constant gaze of government surveillance can produce long-lasting social harm: if citizens are just a little more fearful, a little less likely to freely associate, a little less likely to dissent – the aggregate chilling effect can close what was once an open society."

Answer: So, what's new? Living under the constant gaze of government surveillance ... less likely to freely associate, a little less likely to dissent ... the aggregate chilling effect."

I am a Black Woman, this is America. Reality bites. We live and have lived like this from the day we are born, even before there WAS an NSA or a Patriot Act. They just expanded to all of America what they had been doing to Black people all along...for no reason.

I therefore, have nothing to hide, nothing to fear, nowhere to run and no one I'm afraid of but One: God, indeed, is a just and righteous God.

Ken CArpenter

Your argument confuses apples with pears. Just because I have curtains and would not like to have sex in public does not mean that I would be embarrassed by the content of my private mail or internet searches. Government surveillance has always been a fact of life. Elizabeth the first used Walsingham to keep an eye on her enemies. I would be very disappointed if my government was not keeping an eye on what we are doing. In a democracy we have the tools to limit the governments ability to abuse that power. We have the ballot box and the legal system. So stop bleating and accept it as a fact of life for which we should be grateful.

26pairsxy

pasting my story all over the place…… I thought getting a permanent work injury and having to live on less than $300.00/wk from comp and unemployment was bad. I did not know that the state of New York was monitoring me when I claimed my weekly unemployment benefits using a virtual private network app (vpn) from a public wifi hotspot. They immediately terminated my benefits because they claim that my i.p. address showed me being in another country even though I have never left the lower 48 in my entire life. It’s been three months now without income and I am now homeless, carless, and hungry. My child support is in default and I cannot afford my three b.p. meds. Inhuman.

Repost with my ...

pasting my story all over the place…… I thought getting a permanent work injury and having to live on less than $300.00/wk from comp and unemployment was bad. I did not know that the state of New York was monitoring me when I claimed my weekly unemployment benefits using a virtual private network app (vpn) from a public wifi hotspot. They immediately terminated my benefits because they claim that my i.p. address showed me being in another country even though I have never left the lower 48 in my entire life. It’s been three months now without income and I am now homeless, carless, and hungry. My child support is in default and I cannot afford my three b.p. meds. Inhuman.

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