Nothing to Hide? Asking the Wrong Question (part 3)

04 Jun. 2015

It's been 2 years since the Snowden revelations started, yet many still argue that they have "nothing to hide". The problem with this debate is that we are asking the wrong question.

Last Updated: 22 Sep 2015

Author: Maria Xynou, Researcher at Tactical Tech

This is the 7th blog of the MyShadow series: “Why shrugging at the Snowden revelations is a bad idea” and the final part of its “nothing to hide” sub-series.

It's been two years since Snowden started leaking thousands of confidential NSA documents which illustrate and prove that the communications of almost all citizens around the world are under surveillance through a “collect-it-all” strategy. Yet, instead of questioning the legal and ethical dimensions of spying on the private communications of millions of citizens around the world, agencies narrowed the debate, arguing that “if we have nothing to hide, we should have nothing to fear”.

The problem with this debate is that we are asking the wrong question.

The main assumptions underlying the “nothing to hide” argument imply that privacy is about secrecy and about hiding a wrong. However, security expert Bruce Schneier argues that this is a faulty premise because privacy is in fact a prerequisite of security and the two should not be viewed on the opposite ends of a seesaw. Given that our personal data reflects various aspects of our lives, we can only be more secure if our data is protected, and vice versa.

The argument that individual rights should be sacrifised for the greater good undermines the role that they play in the overall well-being of societies. Privacy expert Daniel J. Solove argues that the “nothing to hide” rhetoric twists the debate towards a direction which neglects the social value of privacy. According to Solove, privacy should not be weighed as an individual right against the greater social good. Instead, privacy should be viewed as an internal dimension of society which should be valued in terms of the social role it plays. After all, if individuals are deprived from their fundamental human rights, how can society at large benefit from that?

Privacy can safeguard both individuals and society at large from the chilling effects of surveillance on free speech, free association and various other rights which are essential for democracy. Freedom of expression and association can lead to the generation of innovative ideas and contribute to the development of societies, while privacy can protect us from abuse by those in power. According to Solove:

Chilling effects harm society because, among other things, they reduce the range of viewpoints expressed and the degree of freedom with which to engage in political activity.

Crazy ideas change the world. How can such ideas, in light of global surveillance, continue to be expressed without fear of retribution? How can we challenge interests and seek to improve societies when those in power control systems which monitor, analyse and retain almost every single detail about our lives?

The “nothing to hide” argument narrows public discourse on surveillance and redirects it to irrelevant questions – like whether or not we did something wrong. Rather, some questions to ask should focus on the following:

  • Are data collectors transparent and accountable?

  • Do data collectors actually obtain explicit informed consent prior to data collection?

  • How close are the ties between data companies and intelligence agencies?

  • Has public and parliamentary debate taken place prior to the implementation of mass surveillance schemes?

  • Are adequate oversight mechanisms in place and if not, how can they be improved?

Instead of addressing such questions, the “nothing to hide” argument narrows the debate, when in fact discussions on surveillance should incorporate concerns and considerations of its overall potential to harm societies at large.

In framing the debate on surveillance around the “nothing to hide” argument we are missing the big picture: it's not about whether we have something to hide or not; rather, it's about whether and to what extent we have freedom.

View the rest of the blog series here and/or check out our blog series timeline.

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