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.

Learn more about the NSA and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Add a comment (33)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

The ultimate argument to this "if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear" would be the pResident revealing of ALL his personal pertinent records. As we can surmise this is NOT going to happen, apparently the pResident does have something to fear, THE TRUTH !

JDJ

In addition, one may inadvertantly break one of the sheer number of laws, rules, and regulations that are in place today. Remember, in today's legal system, mens rea is no longer a defense. That eagle feather you picked up on that camping trip? Well, that photo on Facebook is now exhibit A.

A determined DA will use all data at his disposal to ensure a conviction. If one believes that this data will be limited to intelligence gathering, then one is seriously naive. Power begets power.

ShoreBudMike

There are well over 300 million people in this country. Even if my phone conversations were being listened to and those conversations were completely innocent but were, for example, phone sex, who would care? If the goal is to find suspected or known terrorists, or even pick up on someone who *might* be, why would anyone care about... and do you think there are enough people listening in to all of our phone calls to be the least bit concerned that someone won $200 playing poker? Or that someone else's kid broke a tooth at school? That one person prefers one brand of laundry detergent over another? That someone's school teacher aunt is pregnant by the principal?

I seriously cannot think of a single thing that I would be interested in about anyone else's life, or that anyone else – especially when charged with the task of trying to keep the country safe - would care the least about anything in my conversations. I've got plenty of other things to be pissed off at the government about... the excess of corruption, for starters.

I'm not the least bit interested in the boring details of celebrities lives, and I think those so-called "reality" TV shows are the bottom of the barrel because they've got nothing else to put on that will hold people's attention for more than one segment between commercial breaks.

I think there's just a wee bit of paranoia... and, perhaps, guilty conscience, too.

Mark Murata

The primary reason why the government spies on us is to crack down on dissent and to suppress the truth. The NSA does not spy on us because they are doing anything useful. You will notice in a recent edition of the New York Times, the newspaper mentioned that the NSA didn't even bother to share its information with most other government agencies, including for example. The Drug Enforcement Agency.

I know that the government is primarily concerned with crushing dissent because, over the past few years, they have been doing everything in their power to go after people like me. There are thousands of people worldwide who the government secretly tortures and spies on. I am one of them. We call ourselves targeted individuals. For more information, you can Google that term. I wrote an article that describes what they are doing, in case you are interested:

http://bfanwo.blogspot.com/2012/09/everyone-must-always-uphold-my-three....

If you have any questions, you can contact me by writing a comment on my blog.

Anonymous (haha)

A huge thing we have to fear is what happens to our information over time. Evidence of behavior that is not *currently* criminal may be used later, under a different administration, to persecute us. History is rife with examples just using paper records in filing cabinets.

Homeschool23

Thank you for letting the liberals know that every regulation, invasion of privacy, every right taken from a Conservative will ultimately cost liberals their freedom and with that freedom goes their ability to decide how to live, what to believe in and what to protest. It is no longer a partisan issue but an American issue and if you are ashamed of being an American like the Mooch is, then continue on supporting these psycho policies thinking they will "teach the Conservatives a lesson". These lessons and social ideas you wish to force down everyone's throat with glee and abandon will end up choking you.

Anonymous

One significant social concern that is never covered when refuting against the "nothing to hide" argument is that the government has the ability to collect ALL information about you which is on the internet, not just the information that you voluntarily put there. Any information or conversation someone has entered online about you could potentially be retrieved by the government giving the government greater access to our own private lives than ourselves have access to.

I am very pleased that the ACLU wrote this article. Anyone who uses this argument has certainly never taken the time to thoroughly think it through.

Anonymous

Unfortunately drawing the shades because some thug outside pointed a gun in your window means the cops now have "probable cause" to break down your door.

Anonymous

You also can't protect yourself from individual people who have access to your data acting badly outside of whatever government interest has in gathering your data. All it would take is one stalker or thief to slip into the system and begin targeting individuals, and how do you know if there are safeguards to protect you?

And then there's the concern of misinterpretation of what the data means. You could be acting with the most innocent of purposes and have someone mistakenly come to a wrong conclusion about what you are doing - people buying pressure cookers comes to mind.

Mrunalini Chinn...

More than knowing how the surveillance data is used, it is important to amend Patriot Act and other laws that are being misused and it is importanct to put an end to the surveillance that breaches freedom. And shouldn't the FBI/NSA/Law enforcement/other government agencies be responsible for acts committed as a result of the terror created by the covert surveillance ?

Pages

Sign Up for Breaking News