Security

Why 'Nothing to Hide' misrepresents online privacy

A legal research professor explains to Michael P. Kassner why we should think long and hard before subscribing to the "Nothing to Hide" defense of surveillance and data-gathering.

A colleague stopped me in the hallway at work last week, "Hey, I read your article; and I'm not worried. I have nothing to hide from the NSA." As the week progressed, readers began chiming in, a majority belonging to the "Nothing to Hide" crowd as well.

Towards the end of the week, I received a call from my friend, a security analyst who I emailed earlier in the week about the responses I was getting.

After the usual guy-geek gossip, my friend told me about Daniel J. Solove, a Law Research Professor at George Washington University, and how I should talk to Professor Solove about my concerns. But first, I absolutely must read "Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have 'Nothing to Hide'," an essay written by the professor for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The essay turned out to be exactly what I needed:

The nothing-to-hide argument pervades discussions about privacy. The data-security expert Bruce Schneier calls it the "most common retort against privacy advocates." The legal scholar Geoffrey Stone refers to it as an "all-too-common refrain."

That alone reassured me that my concerns were not mine alone.

Government PoV

Next in the essay, the professor sheds light on how governments view "Nothing to Hide":

In Britain, for example, the government has installed millions of public-surveillance cameras in cities and towns, which are watched by officials via closed-circuit television. In a campaign slogan for the program, the government declares: "If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear."

On this side of the Atlantic, I suspect NSA personnel feel about the same, since PRISM is their project. As for members of Congress, at least one has made his feelings known; in this YouTube video, Senator Lindsey Graham explains why PRISM is justified.

Bottom line: governments of nation states feel security trumps privacy — period.

Privacy pundits PoV

Now I'd like to discuss what concerns those who believe their privacy is under attack. Professor Solove divides their concerns into two parts — surveillance and information processing. The professor equates George Orwell's "Big Brother" to surveillance:

The Orwell metaphor, which focuses on the harms of surveillance (such as inhibition and social control), might be apt to describe government monitoring of citizens.

Next the professor associates the processing of surveillance information with what Franz Kafka investigates in his novel The Trial:

The Trial depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people's information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used.

Professor Solove further explains:

The problems portrayed by the Kafkaesque metaphor are of a different sort than the problems caused by surveillance (Orwell metaphor). They often do not result in inhibition. Instead they are problems of information processing-the storage, use, or analysis of data-rather than of information collection.

To better understand what the professor is saying, let's use a "peeping Tom" example. In the dark of night, a peeping Tom sneaks up to a victim's window and watches the victim, maybe even records a video. That's considered Orwellian surveillance; showing the video to others would be Kafkaesque information dissemination.

Bottom line: Both surveillance and information processing are issue prone from a privacy perspective. The problem in this case is that information processing twists the old adage, "What you don't know can't hurt you" to "What you don't know can hurt you."

Piecing together "Nothing to Hide" information

I'd like to share one last example from the essay. The paradigm involves information even I would stick in the "No need to Hide" category. I'll let the professor explain:

By joining pieces of information we might not take pains to guard, the government can glean information about us that we might indeed wish to conceal. For example, suppose you bought a book about cancer. This purchase isn't very revealing on its own, for it indicates just an interest in the disease.

Suppose you bought a wig. The purchase of a wig, by itself, could be for a number of reasons. But combine those two pieces of information, and now the inference can be made that you have cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy. That might be a fact you wouldn't mind sharing, but you'd certainly want to have the choice.

At writer's group, I was talking to Neil Dowdy, fellow writer, and software guru who understands data mining inside and out. I told Neil about the professor's essay and his cancer book/wig example. After which, I asked how hard it would be to code something like that? He chuckled, "I'm working on that kind of program right now: search a database, looking for specified correlations between two or more data points."

Possible responses to "Nothing to Hide"

Professor Solove had an interesting idea; he asked his readers what they would say to someone who championed "Nothing to Hide?" Here are some of the responses:

  • So do you have curtains? Can I see your credit-card bills for the last year?
  • It's not about having anything to hide; it's about things not being anyone else's business.
  • If you have nothing to hide, that means you are willing to let me photograph you naked. And I get full rights to that photograph-so I can show it to your neighbors.

Remember my colleague from work; I laid the third response on him. To his credit, he argued that other than identification, he'd hoped a picture of him naked would be of little interest to the government. I had to agree.

Final thoughts

I think the term "Nothing to hide" is absolutely the wrong one to use in this situation. It implies guilt, not the right to privacy. And to those who champion "Nothing to Hide," I argue, "It's not about having anything to hide: It's about things not being anyone else's business."

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Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

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