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

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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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woody voinche

Can the louisiana ACLU help me with an FOIA case...i have already filed several suits pro se and have sent another FOIA letter requesting other documents that have not been released

The FBI has already admitted conducting an investigation at woody voinche v. FBI, 46 F. Supp. 2nd(DDC 1999) and further investigation and evidence presented And or having records on a bank fraud charge against the Plaintiff(which were dropped and was an entrapment scheme) by the FBI on communications of woody voinche with foreign nationals in Canada which is the type of records the NSA compile... woody voinche v. FBI, 412 F.Supp. 2nd at 60(DDC 2006) And woody voinche v. Bush, et. al., Case 1:09-cv-01081.
Can the louisiana ACLU help me with this????

Rekha Arulanantham

Wood Voinche, here is contact information for your local affiliate:


I disagree with this article on a very core principle.

The author states "We need to know more about what information the government is collecting about millions of innocent Americans." " 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. "

It's not that we need to know more about what information is being collected, or what the government is doing with the information it is collecting. We need to stop them from doing it in the first place.

As the article points out, collecting this information is unconstitutional on so many levels. Yes, this information can be used to silence dissent. Yes this information can be used to intimidate and control groups and associations. Yes collecting this information could potentially be used by federal or local authorities to single out groups or individuals for harassment or worse. Yes collecting this information is an affront to our constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech and freedom of association.

It is just plain wrong and it is contrary to the American way of life.

Sadly, while we may still be the Home of the Brave, we are no longer the Home of the Free.

Ron in Dothan, AL


@ShoreBudMike: You may think you have nothing to hide, but you’re missing the point of this article. For example, what are you doing on the ACLU’s web site? Are you a dissident? Government agencies may not care what you say, specifically, but that’s not particularly relevant because your virtual presence in an ACLU forum is enough to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that you might be a subversive.

I’m an ACLU member, and also support the Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and other organizations dedicated to ending the War On Drugs. Does that make me a drug user? No, it does not. I don’t use marijuana or any other illicit drug. I don’t even use alcohol or tobacco. My interest is in ending the mass incarceration of people convicted of non-violent drug crimes, and reversing the trend that has resulted in the United States’ current status as the number one jailer in the world (surpassing both Russia and China).

Nevertheless, my reason for supporting drug decriminalization is unimportant, according to Ruben Santiago (the Interim Police Chief in Columbia, South Carolina). According to Mr. Santiago, my political views provide “reasonable suspicion to believe that (I) may be a criminal” and his police department “will work on finding” (people like) me. Google "South Carolina Police Chief Threatens To Target Anyone Who Advocates Legalizing Marijuana".

One day soon, the fact that you commented on an ACLU article may be more than enough for you to be grouped with undesirable political activists. The NSA will be keeping an eye on you.


Transparency works both ways! Trust is a two way street! I hope Snowden releases the phone conversations between CCA and the congressmen who voted for mandatory minimum sentencing.

Support HR 428 to declassify the 911 Joint Congressional Inquiry...the 28 pages redacted by Bush.


Check out my video"NSA Nothin to Hide 1" supporting the declassification of the 911 Joint Inquiry and reveal the 28 pages redacted by Bush. The NSA said if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear. Well, if they have nothing to hide WHY 911 STILL CLASSIFIED???


I recorded a message for the NSA and Obama. If YOU got nothin to hide, why's 911 still classified?

John Lewis

You can see right here how paranoid people are for any agency to associate their thoughts and beliefs to a name. So many people that make their comments and leave that block as "Anonymous". Anonymous won't ensure our freedom. Don't be afraid to speak out for what you believe in.

I am concerned with the direction that we are going with what privacy one should expect in our country. Don't get me wrong. I want the bad guys to get caught. But we can't sacrifice what makes us most proud. Do it right. Get a warrant. We have an upcoming supreme court case about cell phones and what law enforcement are allowed to use as evidence without issuance of a search warrant. Reuters- "Police searched the phone after pulling over Riley's car for having expired tags 20 days after a" (the) San Diego "shooting." If law enforcement could exercise some due diligence and get a search warrant then their case would have never been contested. Now this case is going to be used to set precedence nation wide for what every police officer should be doing.

Do you want every police officer to think that at any traffic stop they need to thumb through your cell phone and look at every picture and text conversation? If this case goes in their favor then it will soon be within their right to invade your privacy at their own personal discretion. This constant intrusion or even threat of intrusion into our privacy is not good and I hope they understand how this will affect our society.


I'm really confused about a few things... Maybe someone can enlighten me?
1. If the NSA Surveillance/Analysis/and most importantly STORAGE of ordinary US Citizens' data is a result of efforts to thwart terrorist acts on US soil, ( I.e., War on Terror, 9-1-1), how would this prevent anything when most acts of terror on the US are from foreign extremist groups?

2. If Foreign NSA surveillance was cost-effective, why did it take so long to find Sadam and Osama?

3. If my personal data has been collected and is being STORED somewhere - how can I be assured that this information is completely safe from a potential Cyber Attack? I have nothing to hide, however; the fact that the US Govt collects and stores (for many years) all of this metadata, makes me really nervous. If the encryption practices used by many recent retailers are an example of how sophisticated hackers can penetrate an enterprise, I shudder to think about every US citizens info. Just sitting in some data warehouse just waiting for a Cyber Terrorist attack. All of the info of every citizen is just sitting somewhere... Like a juicy steak on a hook for a starving tiger...

Vicki B.

Well, I DON'T have anything to hide online. The worst thing I've ever done online is download a picture of Johnny Depp naked - and it wasn't even satisfying b/c all you could see was his BACKside which only showed his cute behind but that's all. You didn't get to see what that WOman, Amber Heard, gets to see.
Anyway, the other thing I did which could be considered worse happened by accident and that's the truth. I'm not lying.
I was looking for Columbia Records, and somehow ended up on a web site from the country Columbia in Central America and it was a porn site.
I was totally embarrassed and felt extremely confused about it. How could I end up there when I was looking for Columbia records? It was the first time I got online. And I'm not as young as I look. I remember when there was no Internet.


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