“If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.”
We’ve all heard this argument a million times when talking to people about the latest revelations of government snooping or the latest roll-out of creepy Orwellian technology. The implication is that the only people who complain about having their privacy violated are criminals who deserve to have their privacy violated. It is a simple phrase, learned by rote, that is meant to bring the conversation to a close.
We all know that this is argument is fundamentally flawed, but sometimes it is difficult to argue the point with someone who insists that they are fine with seemingly any level of government intrusion in their personal lives. Recently, Dan Dicks of PressForTruth.ca, a Canadian alternative media outlet, demonstrated in a simple, fun way, the limits of people’s willingness to abide by the maxim that they have nothing to fear because they have nothing to hide. Setting up his camera on a busy thoroughfare, he asked a number of passersby a series of increasingly invasive questions. “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” “Who was the last person you phoned?” “What was the last thing you Googled?” “What’s your mother’s maiden name?” “What’s your bank account number?” Somewhere in the line of questioning, the person answering would inevitably claim that the question was too personal and would decline to answer. They had reached the limit of what they were willing to reveal about themselves to a total stranger.
So why are people (sometimes the very same people who argue that they have nothing to hide) reluctant to give away all of their personal information to a random person on the street? Obviously because they do not know that person or his intentions. He could be a criminal attempting to steal the information so he can access their bank account or steal their identity. Even if he wasn’t a criminal, who’s to say where the information would end up, and whether it may eventually end up in the hands of some nefarious criminal?
For some reason, people believe that allowing the government to spy on all of their electronic communications is somehow different. These aren’t random criminals on the street, after all, but government agencies. The information is not being accessed randomly, it is being used for official investigations into terrorism or wrongdoing. Our personal data, even our bank account numbers and personal histories, are surely safe with these government agencies and their trusted employees.
But think for a moment about the recent NSA spying scandal and what it has taught us. As much as Edward Snowden’s critics attempt to demonize him by pointing out that he is a high school dropout, an Army quitter, a lowly security guard who somehow or other flubbed his way into a job where he gained access to this top secret information, what these critics don’t realize is that they are making the very point for why we should not be happy entrusting our most personal information to a bunch of faceless government agencies. Because the faceless government agencies aren’t really faceless at all; they are populated by the very same types of potential criminals and nogoodniks that we would avoid sharing our personal information with on the street. Think about the extraordinary amount of data that someone like Snowden—a lowly employee of a subcontractor of the NSA—can access about you personally at any time he desires. As he himself stated: “I sitting at my desk certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you, to your accountant, to a federal judge to even the President if I had a personal email.”
You have something to fear about giving up private data to faceless individuals precisely because you have no idea how these people are going to use that information, or whether it will ever be misused. And when you realize that with the construction of the NSA’s new 1.5 million square foot data center in Utah the US government now has the ability to essentially store all of this data forever, you are entrusting your personal information not just to one potential criminal on the street, but to every single federal employee who ever has access to that data, and to anyone who might gain access to that data illegally. The government is essentially creating a trough of information that would be almost literally invaluable to any potential criminal or group of criminals, and making every effort to ensure that that trough is never emptied. How can anyone possibly be OK with this?
Think about this the next time someone tries to tell you they have nothing to hide.