Why ‘I Have Nothing to Hide’ Is the Wrong Way to Think About Surveillance (article)

June 27, 2013

The recent revelations by Edward Snowden of the global surveillance of internet communications by the American NSA was a vivid reminder of the need for everyone to think much more carefully about their online behavior. However, many people seem to regard Snowden’s revelations as interesting or curious but not startling. Such people seem to think that they would never be the target of US government surveillance or that, even if they were, there would be nothing to fear as they are law-abiding people. This article, written by Moxie Marlinspike for WIRED challenges these comfortable assumptions. It is well worth reading.

Some notable paragraphs:

Both then and now, privacy advocates have typically come into conflict with a persistent tension, in which many individuals don’t understand why they should be concerned about surveillance if they have nothing to hide.

[…] For instance, did you know that it is a federal crime to be in possession of a lobster under a certain size? It doesn’t matter if you bought it at a grocery store, if someone else gave it to you, if it’s dead or alive, if you found it after it died of natural causes, or even if you killed it while acting in self defense. You can go to jail because of a lobster.

If the federal government had access to every email you’ve ever written and every phone call you’ve ever made, it’s almost certain that they could find something you’ve done which violates a provision in the 27,000 pages of federal statues or 10,000 administrative regulations. You probably do have something to hide, you just don’t know it yet.

[…] We can only desire based on what we know. It is our present experience of what we are and are not able to do that largely determines our sense for what is possible. This is why same sex relationships, in violation of sodomy laws, were a necessary precondition for the legalization of same sex marriage. This is also why those maintaining positions of power will always encourage the freedom to talk about ideas, but never to act.

[…] Today things are very different. Almost everyone carries a tracking device (their mobile phone) at all times, which reports their location to a handful of telecoms, which are required by law to provide that information to the government. Tracking everyone is no longer inconceivable, and is in fact happening all the time.

Also, for a more detailed discussion of the “I have nothing to hide” argument, have a look at Daniel J. Solove’s article “‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy“.

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