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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from Richard, V...

There's 'knowing' something and then there's 'knowing' it.
Example: Before I went to Vietnam by choice of Big Brother I knew the government probably inserted itself into the individual's life probably more than we'd like to know - but it had no real effect on me. It in no way changed anything I DID as a result of knowing this information.

After I returned from Nam, though, was a different story entirely. Suddenly I knew what knowing all those things about me would mean for how I was going to be treated differently just because they could read all the information at a traffic stop, find out I served in Nam and take out their anger on me instead of the government that SENT me there. It enraged the HELL out of me to know that the government at all levels, including local police, were going to act from misguided and to be frank WRONG information without ever asking me what it was like to be there or if that information was true - which most of it WASN'T.
They simply made assumptions based on God knows what and acted upon said suppositions.

A returning veteran could not look forward to getting a job if the employer knew he was a Vietnam Veteran and could lose his job under a pretense (the employer would invent an "acceptable" reason for termination so as not to admit it was discrimination) if they found out after hiring you that you'd served in Vietnam. All sorts of things that regular people take for granted (like employment and housing) were denied to veterans because of the horrible stigma on the war that the American media created on purpose, also for ungodly reasons of which I never discovered what they were but I believe there's a special place in hell for the ones who did it.
Public outcry over the war made a name change, at least for a while, absolutely necessary before I could get employment but my father paid for it and not every veteran had the option to change a part of his name. It doesn't delete information though, it only made it harder to get and necessary for the g-worker to have to earn the information through hard work as well as a stroke of genius luck. Most g-workers dislike even the smallest amounts of labor and the name change worked for a while. I took back my true name in the 90's when I no longer needed the alias.

That's what I mean by 'knowing' and not caring versus 'knowing' and having experience to back up what makes it necessary to retain some privacy.

Anonymous

The idea that "if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about" assumes that the government is full of good people that would not abuse their power, ever. Even if this were true now, we cannot be sure it'll be true in the future. The US Republic was founded on the idea that humans are corruptible and we need to have checks and balances against corruption built into our government. Because corrupt people will oppress those who have done nothing wrong.

Anonymous

TITLE 18, U.S.C., SECTION 241

Section 241 of Title 18 is the civil rights conspiracy statute. Section 241 makes it unlawful for two or more persons to agree together to injure, threaten, or intimidate a person in any state, territory or district in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him/her by the Constitution or the laws of the Unites States, (or because of his/her having exercised the same). Unlike most conspiracy statutes, Section 241 does not require that one of the conspirators commit an overt act prior to the conspiracy becoming a crime.
The offense is punishable by a range of imprisonment up to a life term or the death penalty, depending upon the circumstances of the crime, and the resulting injury, if any.
TITLE 18, U.S.C., SECTION 241
If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same;...
They shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and if death results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, they shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both, or may be sentenced to death.

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