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Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have 'Nothing to Hide' (2011) (chronicle.com)
278 points by ekm2 on June 8, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments



The "nothing to hide -> nothing to fear" sophistry is about shifting the basis of judgement from "innocent until proven guilty" to "guilty until proven innocent," replacing reason with superstition. It's McCarthyism; it's an inquisition. An individual has no rights over the hysterical "consensus" of the mob.

Unfortunately, there is no piece of evidence that can exonerate a person in such a context; one cannot "establish innocence," the best one can hope for is to plead tirelessley in an endless popularity contest.

The right to privacy is nothing less than the right to keep an individual mind... To own a body. If you value your own life, the right to privacy - to be left alone - is your beginning and your end, if not kept.

(Edited an error/reversal.)


> An individual has no rights over the hysterical "consensus" of the mob.

Those things are not new and unrelated to surveillance, surveillance only amplify those problems. The issue is, companies/government should not be allowed to take decisions or discriminate, based or not on information, without a decision from a judge.

The rest was about shortcuts being taken, because the government was able to take those shortcuts, because:

1. people are not aware of the technologies enabling surveillance, and how to efficiently protect themselves. Those technologies are new.

2. Current internet technologies being surveillance oriented rather than privacy oriented. This need to change and will obviously change one day or the other. At least the market will expand with the news.


Your comment was a lovely read. Can you recommend a text or subject matter I could look over to learn more about this point of view?


That's very poignant, are these your words or some quote of some such.


No quote, just thinking out loud (so, as another comment asked, I can't really offer any recommended reading... Other than maybe this classic episode of TNG: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8WpjLGh3wg&list=PLB579CFA383... ).


One fundamental problem with the "nothing to hide" argument is that it makes several casual assumptions which should not be made. An alternate formulation of the saying is "why fear the truth if you have done nothing wrong", which is generally the sentiment of the "nothing to hide" sayings as well. However, the proper form of that saying should be "why fear the truth if you have done nothing the government dislikes". And this is on a much different stance than the others. The issue is not right or wrong, the government is not an absolute arbiter of morality, the issue is government power.

Consider how often and how recently in our own history there have been activities which have been illegal and yet not "morally wrong" as considered today. Aiding escaped slaves. Homosexuality. Inter-racial marriage. Abortion. And so forth.

Also note how I said "nothing the government dislikes" rather than "nothing illegal". And that's because when a government has broad sweeping powers, especially of surveillance, government agents can easily punish people and ruin people's lives regardless of whether their activities are illegal.

Our system of governance has been designed at its core to limit the powers of government. This is very much intentional because it is designed to allow government to enforce the laws only with the cooperation with the public at large. A government that can enforce laws independent of the will of the people is a government poised for the transition to tyranny.

There is a reason why the term "police state" is so reviled even though in itself it contains merely mechanical descriptions. And that is because even if a "benign police state" could exist the danger is far too great that the reins of power would be usurped by those seeking their own ends and their own advantages. And the most forceful way to avoid such a catastrophe is again to limit the power of the state.


Indeed. Consider someone is planning on going to an Occupy Wall Street protest. Say that the government is monitoring that persons emails and finds that the person wrote to a fellow protester: "man, fuck corporations, I can't wait to try and bring them down on xday." Now the people reading that private email decide that this message constitutes enough of a threat to act on. They send the police over to that guy's place on the day of the protest and have the police detain him for the rest of the day. They let him go once the protests wind down without incident.

Now I don't think anyone actually committed a crime in that scenario, but it is easy to see how such powers could be used to seriously hinder the democratic process.


Read /u/161719's amazing post on reddit on this topic: http://www.reddit.com/r/changemyview/comments/1fv4r6/i_belie...


Quite the read. One part in particular struck me as highly significant to our current situation with PRISM.

"With this tech in place, the government doesn't have to put you in jail. They can do something more sinister. They can just email you a sexy picture you took with a girlfriend. Or they can email you a note saying that they can prove your dad is cheating on his taxes. Or they can threaten to get your dad fired."

With increased surveillance, the government won't have to necessarily prosecute or penalize dissidents, they can merely intimidate them extralegally. It's unlikely in the near future that we will see intelligence gathered from PRISM used in domestic courts, but it's not improbable that this collected information could be used to blackmail individuals into compliance. Think J. Edgar Hoover's secret cache of incriminating files (on such dignitaries as JFK and Eleanor Roosevelt) extended to the general public.


Funny thing is, this is basically a trillion dollar method of Mafia tactics.

"that's a nice family ya got there, it'd be a shame if somethin' shoulda happen to it..."


I just finished writing a post about pretty much about the same thing (http://maxmackie.com/2013/06/08/We-have-a-very-important-dec...).

(I tried submitting my link but I'm getting a "Please try again" error every time, so I gave up. Feel free to post it yourself.)

Thing is, we have the ability to take action right now. The author of the post on reddit is right: things like this already happen in other parts of the world. We have ways of protecting ourselves at our disposal. They're even accessible to non-techy people. People just need to recognize the events of the past couple days as an actual threat.


What was the point of linking that article, it is misleading- he didn't provide solutions.


Not everything in life is as simple as checking Stack Exchange.


Comparing all the governments in the world, and highlighting some pretty obvious ones like China, Russia, Iran, North Korea.. the fact that the FISA courts even exist, at all, for a country as steadily in the cross-hairs as the USA, is amazing. I would dare to say that you're more protected from government sponsored surveillance activities, inside the US, than anywhere else. And you don't even have to be a citizen. If folks bother to read DNI Clappers release.. and actually absorb it, really read it, you might recognize how far we actually are from that amazingly revealing and horrifying reddit post.


that is quite a story. thank you for posting this.


Do you fully support the current party in control of the government? If not, you have something to hide.

Do you fully support the party that will be in control of the government in five years? If not, you have something to hide.

You think I'm being silly? Six months ago you might have been able to float that argument, but with an openly partisan IRS, go ahead, tell me why that's wrong.


I agree with your message, however was the IRS really being partisan or is it that tea party groups in particular(and those that seek to fund them) are more actively exploiting the "social welfare organization" loophole?


The IRS was being partisan. I consider this fairly well established at this point. The only remaining question is exactly where the idea to be aggressively partisan came from.


Yet there is evidence they investigated "liberal" groups for the same sort of thing.


Applying correct amounts of scrutiny to one set of people, and abusive amounts of scrutiny to another, is still being partisan. Don't let them hide behind that.

Seriously. It's extraordinarily dangerous to our way of life to try to defend the IRS on this one because, I presume, you don't like the Tea Party. This isn't bad news for Tea Party or conservative groups. This is bad news for anyone subject to IRS jurisdiction. Who's going to be in control of the IRS in four years? (We're a ways out, but certainly decent odds it ain't gonna be someone with a (D) after their name.)


this article also misses 'falsification'. If the government is collecting data, there is an implicit level of truthfulness in this data, which someone malicious working in the government could use to frame you for a crime or cause other less severe harm to you (financial, social, whatever).

This person need not be accountable, say, to the voter (it could be a low-level bureaucrat with a petty axe to grind), and although presumably there is 'accountability', what if the harm done to you is significant enough to make your life miserable, but not significant enough to the monolithic agency (which remember is only accountable indirectly, to elected officials who may care about stupid stuff like political wedge issues) to justify the expenditure and effort to root out the malicious actor.


Most of those articles are missing one important point.

"I have nothing to hide because I don't do anything wrong."

What does "wrong" mean in this context? Against the law.

So - how many torts or crimes are there on the books? How may ways of interpreting them are there - both already writted down and possible in the future? Are they interpreted by flawless machines or emotional humans? Etc. etc.


Another point I was not seeing is reciprocity. Even if I really do not have anything to hide--and I might even not mind the naked picture thing, because will anyone actually care?--then I should be able to see everybody else as well, especially the rich and powerful including those who are running the surveillance system.


Why would you need to have something to hide to want privacy? What bothers me about being watched or spied on is everyone having their nose in my business. I also see it as an insult, as you are essentially degrading me and treating me as though I am hiding something, when I'm not. My business is none of your business; keep out of it.


"Retorts to the nothing-to-hide argument about exposing people's naked bodies ... are relevant only if the government is likely to gather this kind of information"

Yes, because it is crazy to suggest that the US government might be collecting images of people's naked bodies...

(To be clear, I do agree with the article. I just couldn't help but laugh a bit at the idea that the government taking nude photographs of people is depicted as "extreme.")


If I have nothing to hide, i.e. am doing nothing illegal, you don't have any reason to be watching me.


A good and very comprehensive article on the subject. The only area I wish the article would also include is how society is today built on top of the assumption that privacy exist, and what happens when that assumption is found to be wrong.

To take an example, the court system assumes that judge and jury members private life is not known. When one side in a trial knows the judge or juries dreams, aspirations, deep secrets or just plain biases, that party has suddenly gained an huge unfair advantage. Since we can now start to grasp the amount of information gathered by the state, Google or Facebook, can a trail involving either one of them still be claimed to be fair and just if the other party do not has similar inside knowledge of the judges or juries lives?


The real question is: When do you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, either online or IRL?

Yes, I have curtains, but unless I close them, I don't expect privacy. If I'm using mainstream social media sites, I don't expect privacy either. The problem is that most people don't think about the "curtains" being open by default when they're online.

I think we do have a right to privacy and obviously most people have something to hide, but that privacy should require intentional effort to enable (eg closing the curtains, TOR + VPN).


The problem comes when "they" start to peek in everywhere. They being the guys in uniform who has guns and the authority to put you in jail.

"First reasonable suspicion, then limited surveillance" have served us well in the past. I don't see how that changes if the communication channel is semi-public.

You never had any privacy in a downtown coffee shop, but if they wanted to listen they had to send someone to follow you around, which kind of limited how much surveillance we had to put up with.

Electronic communication is a game changer, now we have the option to read everyone’s mail, all the time.

Unlimited surveillance will lead to unreasonable suspicion - how many honest people may be flagged and get on the no-fly list, perhaps getting their job/visa applications rejected for no obvious reasons so you can feel secure?.

I don't fancy having to watch my words so they don't get misinterpreted by the guys with guns in uniform.

We are the people, we make the laws. And IMHO the law should be very clear ... Gentlemen don't read each others mail - unless there is a very valid reason to do so.


I agree that the law should be more clear, but I also think a lot of people are overreacting to this case and not applying a consistant standard of privacy outrage.

Google constantly reads my email to display ads in GMail. That's a tradeoff I'm willing to make for free email service. There are many Google advertisers that I trust less than the NSA, and yet I continue to use GMail.

The big difference is that I didn't have a chance to evaluate the security/privacy tradeoff in the case of PRISM, but if I had, I think I would still choose to use the services of the companies involved with the program.


When google are watching and you are careless with your words you may get an inappropriate ad displayed.

When the government is listening you may get on the no-fly list, or worse ...

Not a small difference IMHO.


Different degrees of intrusion. Even with my blinds open, I expect there to be no wholesale video surveillance recording me, and I don't expect my activities to be visible to somebody on the other side of the world. There are many large cities where such an expectation of privacy would be unreasonable, with cameras everywhere, but I could never live in such a place.


I don't expect anyone to be looking through my window with binoculars, though.


In my vision of ideal privacy considerations, such a thing would be "opt-out", not the other way around.


"nothing to hide -> nothing to fear" is a misdirection. It gets the enemy to waste time arguing against something that is obvioulsy stupid.


There is no such thing as 'Nothing to Hide' unless you have an extremely naive view of the world. If you feel that way, you just need to remember that out there, somewhere, are those who'll judge you harshly for being you.

Sure, you may not be ashamed of it. You're probably not be breaking any laws that you're aware of, at least none that really matter. You're pretty sure you live in a country that you're free from persecution. All should be OK, right?

Sadly, whether that's true or not, that only works for today. Tomorrow, well it would seem those with enough bile and hate to judge you, seem to be one of the few sets of people who actually want to seek out power and privledge over you.

You sure you're really that free today? You sure you'll really be that free tomorrow. Your sure it'll be the same for your kids? If there is any hesitation, any hesitation at all, then it's probably not a brilliant idea to sit idly by and accept Government creating profiles on you and the future you's.

Dead god, won't anyone think of the children? :P


> "What if the government mistakenly determines that based on your pattern of activities, you're likely to engage in a criminal act? What if it denies you the right to fly? What if the government thinks your financial transactions look odd—even if you've done nothing wrong—and freezes your accounts?"

That's a lot of ifs. I don't think it really has anything to do about privacy issues. Privacy issues created those "ifs". That's a paranoid state, not a state of law and rights. Those are issues created by society unable to sort its things. I doubt a government can really forbid things based on information, and if so, it already existed before.

Of privacy issues make things worse, but those issues were the mix of a digital age and terrorism. Nobody can escape the fact congress will vote laws and agencies will want to work on things.


In pre-urban times with smaller houses people used to have far less privacy from their families and their neighbours than they do today, but of course back then the lack of privacy was symmetric. I think I would like to live in a society with less privacy, but only if it was something that everybody had to endure. I certainly don't want some person unknown to me spying on me without being able to spy back, that creates a very dangerous power differential.

And of course a big part of the problem nowadays is that everybody does things that are illegal regularly, there are so many laws that how could we not? "Ignorance of the law is no excuse", just the fact that you're not aware of having committed any felonies doesn't in any way guarantee you haven't committed one.


Pretty sure I've read with this exact or a very similarly titled article.

Unfortunately, I can't help but find it very unconvincing, despite that I'd like to be convinced. There are lots of words but few strong arguments (or any kind of arguments).


Agreed. I read it hoping to be convinced (wanting to be convinced), but it was too wordy and lacked a compelling argument. I do believe privacy is important and we should all care about it. But I also want to read a strong well-written argument to support that position.


Does gov't have anything to hide?

I have access to plenty of proprietary data. Is it wrong that i want to keep that data private? Why would I want people in gov't to have insider information?


The fundamental problem with that saying is that it for it to be formed, for it to even exist, as a thought, the reality in which you are currently cohabiting must be terribly skewed off the truth axis. Black must be white, up must be down, and good must be evil.

I mean, look at our society...just look at it. So much of its energy is devoted to ruling people. Judges, courts, bailiffs, clerks, kings, police, lawyers, etc. It's madness. Most people can't even imagine any other way of living...when they write about alien societies, the aliens have laws as well, and clerks as well, and laws as well.


Of course privacy matters, even if you are doing nothing wrong. Without it, we'd continually have to explain our actions and prove our innocence to people who don't understand our situation.

And that's a lot of work. And they really aren't motivated to understand.

And its a lot of work trying to understand everyone else's situation. I certainly don't want to.

So nature gave us a need for privacy and the means to respect the privacy of others. And even the sense to often pretend that we don't see many things.


I have often thought that any successful attempt at AI would have to reproduce the behaviors associated with fear/paranoia and lying. (Or maybe I'm just taking The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy too literally.)


I would say that there is a difference between artificial intelligence and artificial human intelligence.

Then again, I also prefer the terminology "synthetic" to "artificial".


"So the government is spying on me. So what?"

http://pastebin.com/7SRmFpFH


Anyone without a Facebook account of `median person' content and traffic will be flagged ORANGE for further investigation. Of course this includes the homeless and off-grid.

New phone app opportunity:

Chaff-bot of expected `median person' content and traffic into their's and your own Facebook account.


Regarding the original Veriz court order.. Answer me this: Does your phone number, or the fact that your particular string of numbers is a phone number, somehow exist in the universe with some sort of innate privacy apart from you? Nope. What exactly does a phone number, absent a name, address, billing info, or other customer info, mean to anyone, even the NSA.


The fact is that if you have someone's phone number, you generally have access to all that other information because linking it to a name and thus everything else is fairly trivial, even for ordinary people not affiliated with the NSA. Claiming it's somehow okay and protecting privacy because they have the phone numbers without names is ridiculous.


Basically, knowledge is power. The more knowledge the government have the more power they have over you. We all do something wrong, do drugs, be unfaithful, avoid taxes, bend rules/laws, say things against friends/family/employer, etc, etc, all this can be used to blackmail and control us. We all have something we want to hide from someone.


Although I agree the "nothing to hide" argument is fundamentally flawed, I have yet to read a solid rebuttal to it. This article has not broken that trend. While it has given me some food for thought, I feel it resorts to a weak slippery slope argument, not quite capturing what feels truly wrong about universal monitoring.

--garbled by my mobile



I think there's a big difference between privacy of information about you and privacy of your physical self, which is a bit jumbled in this article.


For once, an article that defends privacy while recognizing the non-obviousness of the issue. That makes it unusually convincing, but there is still one part I find weak:

Investigating the nothing-to-hide argument a little more deeply, we find that it looks for a singular and visceral kind of injury. Ironically, this underlying conception of injury is sometimes shared by those advocating for greater privacy protections. For example, the University of South Carolina law professor Ann Bartow argues that in order to have a real resonance, privacy problems must "negatively impact the lives of living, breathing human beings beyond simply provoking feelings of unease." She says that privacy needs more "dead bodies," and that privacy's "lack of blood and death, or at least of broken bones and buckets of money, distances privacy harms from other [types of harm]."

Bartow's objection is actually consistent with the nothing-to-hide argument. Those advancing the nothing-to-hide argument have in mind a particular kind of appalling privacy harm, one in which privacy is violated only when something deeply embarrassing or discrediting is revealed. Like Bartow, proponents of the nothing-to-hide argument demand a dead-bodies type of harm.

Bartow is certainly right that people respond much more strongly to blood and death than to more-abstract concerns. But if this is the standard to recognize a problem, then few privacy problems will be recognized. Privacy is not a horror movie, most privacy problems don't result in dead bodies, and demanding evidence of palpable harms will be difficult in many cases.

The author dismisses the "need for blood" as too extreme, but that is not convincing. For example, consider the most compelling argument in the article, which is that government data collection creates a Kafkaesque world in which the opacity of the procedures renders the individuals powerless:

Government information-gathering programs are problematic even if no information that people want to hide is uncovered. In The Trial, the problem is not inhibited behavior but rather a suffocating powerlessness and vulnerability created by the court system's use of personal data and its denial to the protagonist of any knowledge of or participation in the process. The harms are bureaucratic ones—indifference, error, abuse, frustration, and lack of transparency and accountability.

This is a powerful argument, but it is not going to convince a majority of people unless you can show real harm. Not blood or broken bones, but actual cases where good guys (as perceived by the majority) were harmed by government surveillance, e.g. harassed or put to jail. Why would people feel a "suffocating powerlessness and vulnerability" if the Kafkaesque bureaucracy does not eventually bring actual harm? (The case of Aaron Swartz is not an example: the problem lied with the CFAA rather than government surveillance).

I'm still optimistic: the process will work as usual. Government powers will be abused. There will be scandals. In the long term, laws will be improved and transparency will increase. What reasons do I have to think otherwise?


The whole argument is premised on the idea that the laws are all moral and just and government is some noble protector, watching over us. The reality is that the government is a monopolistic protection racquet and I pretty much want to hide everything from them. Surveillance is a mechanism by which they control their subjects.

The more they know about me the more they can steal off me and the more liable I am to be attacked for disobeying one of their edicts. If I want to do something that the government arbitrarily decides it "wrong", then I've got something to hide.

So yeah, I have everything to hide from a criminal gang.


So the government does nothing worthwhile? Public roads? The FAA? The park service? The EPA? GPS?

Should all of that be privatized, where there is absolutely no control available to the public? These are services that are by nature a monopoly, we can't really vote with our money.


If you feel this way, why not move somewhere with no government?




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