Everyone Has Something To Hide: Why Privacy Is Important Even If 'You've Done Nothing Wrong'

from the reality-check dept

It’s really amazing that people still trot out the “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide” argument these days. The argument has been debunked so many times, there’s even a scholarly paper debunking it. However, it’s still quite popular, especially among law enforcement types. So it’s nice to see that some are trying to focus in on disproving this troubling claim. Reporter Barton Gellman is apparently starting up a new blog (oddly, it’s not at all clear where that blog is, or if it’s just a sub-segment of an existing blog) to focus in on this issue. In the introductory post he summarizes the point nicely:

Everyone has something to hide. Privacy is relational. It depends on the audience. You don’t want your employer to know you’re job hunting. You don’t spill all about your love life to your mom, or your kids. You don’t tell trade secrets to your rivals. We don’t expose ourselves indiscriminately, and we care enough about exposure to lie as a matter of course. Among upstanding citizens, researchers have consistently found that lying is “an everyday social interaction” (twice a day among college students, once a day in the Real World). Remember the disasters that befell Jim Carrey in that movie plot that left him magically unable to fib for even one day? Comprehensive transparency is a nightmare.

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Comments on “Everyone Has Something To Hide: Why Privacy Is Important Even If 'You've Done Nothing Wrong'”

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Rooker (user link) says:


It comes down to privilege. Person A, who is almost certainly white, male, straight and Christian, cannot comprehend why anyone would worry about people snooping into their private affairs, because it doesn’t affect Person A personally. Nothing in Person A’s lifestyle has any stigma attached to it, so he thinks he has nothing to hide.

Person B is black, female, gay and atheist and understands *exactly* why privacy is important.

Keven Sutton (profile) says:

Re: Privilege

Until person A considers all the fetish porn on their hard drive, or the money that they are hiding from the IRS, or the recent affair that their wife had, or just the fact that their kid is failing several classes in school.

The understanding of the necessity privacy is not exclusive to race, sexual preference, or religious view point. It has everything to do with shame or pride. I seriously doubt that there is a person on earth who has nothing that they are ashamed of. It’s mostly a matter of pointing this out to people and reminding them that “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” which is still a good quote, despite it’s often overuse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Privilege

Maybe you’re just trolling, but I’m person A and so are many millions of other people, and I understand the human desire for privacy quite well.

I’m not sure which of those properties necessarily translates into privilege either. You didn’t include “rich” or “affluent” in that list, nor give a reason why those things would imply an ignorance about the human drive for privacy.

People whose depth of thinking begins and ends at “you have nothing to hide” are, sadly, not interested in delving into arguments from the opposition, scholarly or otherwise. Most people do not care to explore their opinions or positions in great intellectual depth.

That’s why I feel that all the argument in the world often amounts to nothing. You can take any subject that produces divisive opinions and find definitive and compelling dialogue on both sides that explores every possible facet of the issue. Every conversation has been had before, in greater depth and by smarter people than you or I. I don’t think the problem of ignorance is because of a lack of compelling arguments, but rather people’s lack of ambition to avail themselves of the information out there about the subject.

Al says:

Re: Privilege

1. That is utterly racist

2. I suspect you need to broaden your horizons

person A. Is religious and expects the privileged position due to their obvious religion.

person B has been the unfortunate victim of such attacks

Notice there is no color and no gender bias because people without prejudices don’t see that distinction.

Rob says:

The Flaw Here...

… is that when people say “I don’t care, I have nothing to hide,” they’re speaking about governmental eavesdropping. The relational nature of privacy isn’t the best argument against this, because your relationship to the eavesdropper is known.

For example, TSA body-scans me– I allow it because I like traveling, but society allows this because TSA security are authoritative and entrusted with a silver-surfer polaroid of my body.

Another example. When you go to the doctor, you would reveal your entire naked body despite feeling uncomfortable doing so with any human being because you believe that the value of the hernia exam is worth the trade off.

In other words “I have nothing to hide” is much more than “comprehensive transparency” as outlined above. To say it is creates a strawman of the issue and helps no one.

Solove’s article makes a more interesting point later on (if I remember anyway) when he talks about information-control models. (I have privacy filters on Facebook because I don’t want my boss seeing naked photos of me– I want to control that information. Nevermind that I don’t and that picture was actually printed out and taped to the bulletin board at work today…).

The real threat in giving up privacy is that in the best of circumstances, I can know how my information is being used today or yesterday and consent on those terms; however, the terms could change in the future, and I will have no recourse to say “I don’t want my information to be used that way”.

out_of_the_blue says:

Worry about the next stage, where accusation = imprisonment.

Notice that I don’t say “= guilt”, because that’d still imply some sort of sanity and limits and that you might escape because nothing can be proven. The gov’t has already instilled a climate of fear, part of which is deliberately letting us know that they’re spying on us. They have labels of “terrorist” and “enemy combatant” that remove all humanity and sympathy from those so accused, and anyone who objects to this utter lawlessness by public employees is labeled a “terrorist supporter”. So the next step — a *very* short one — is that mere *arbitrary* accusation (from a network of paid informers or a cop that you talk back to) will result in imprisonment, no charge, no attorney, no hope of avoiding it, not even the status of human, *just* a prisoner.

A Russian “joke” paraphrased from Solzhenitsin (? spelling), “One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich”:

“What did you do to get twenty years, comrade?”


“Nothing? You must have done something. For nothing you get only ten years.”

Laurel L. Russwurm (profile) says:

Loss of Control

Citizens are being asked to give up all control over Intellectual Property (IP) we’ve purchased. The manufacturer’s rights over-rule ours as they limit or control our use of our own property through deployment of DRM or lawsuits for non-commercial personal sharing.

At the same time, we are being asked to give up all control over our own personal information up to and including body scans (call it personal privacy or PP).

Citizens are simply being asked to give up our rights.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why privacy rights exist?

Because otherwise the government always abuse that power.

Once it is ok to do it, they will use it for other things.

The TSA is an example it was said it would never record anything, and surprise, it is recording and not only that it sends those things only God knows where.

But that is mostly irrelevant, the real pain occurs when someone gets some embarrassing information about an individual and uses that to coerce that individual to do something else.

Obama should get all the permissions he wants so he can keep an eye on congress and find out about their indiscretions and use that to accomplish something, wouldn’t that be great? and when Obama is gone and a prick president like Bush gets elected again he can use all of that to screw people even more.

Now for the common people I can see police officers harassing people to get things, he got a neighbour he doesn’t like, that is fine lets see what the guy is doing wrong so he can confront him. That is the power you give to government when you don’t fight for privacy.

And those are not theory either, I saw it happen in many instances in my life so no matter how much BS those people spout I know what happens. I know out there the will stop at nothing to make something happen.

It is just to much of a temptation to resist, those power hungry idiots can’t control themselves and probably never will.

Want some dirt on some other business so you can close it down? That can be done.

Heck that is why Hollywood was so afraid of movie trading in the stock exchange that meant scrutiny in their finances with a microscope by the SEC and they didn’t want that at all.

Overcast (profile) says:

“if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide”

One could also put forth the argument:

“if I’ve done nothing wrong, why are you concerned with snooping on me?”.

It’s the WHOLE core of the concept “innocent until proven guilty” – but that doesn’t seem to be too popular anymore.

Clearly; the concept of “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide” – assume guilt by default – it has to.

Michial Thompson (user link) says:

WOW not even one comment supporting taking privacy away

YET god forbid someone talk about wanting my home to be kept private and not photographed by every tom dick and harry palm out there…

Go figure, little mikee posts about how it’s everyone god given right to invade the privacy of my yard from any angle and every cronie jumps on the band wagon, then he mentions how everyone wants privacy and all the cronies are in support.

Guess it comes down to getting the privacy ONLY when your locked in a room with no other human, or windows or even the ability for air and sound to get in or out.

Keven Sutton (profile) says:

Re: WOW not even one comment supporting taking privacy away

First I’d like to congratulate you on the nice strawman you have there. It seem to work quite well for you.

Second, most of the arguments about someone taking a picture or viewing your house have to deal with the Streisand effect, not with how right or wrong it is. Drawing attention to the fact that you don’t want people to know certain information that is already public will almost always draw more attention to the certain information as well.

third, There is a huge difference between standing in public – being in the line of sight of something and someone actively trying to dig up information on me. It has to do with expectation of privacy, not with the information itself. Example, I am standing naked in the middle of the street, no expectation of privacy. I am standing naked in my house, in the shower, much expected privacy.

I realize that you prefer beating on a strawman, but seeing as how that poor strawman of yours is getting a little worn, maybe you’d like a new one.

Lyle says:

Re: WOW not even one comment supporting taking privacy away

Is the picture taken from a public street? If so you have no expectation of privacy. Get permission to erect an 8 foot concrete wall ala Latin America and you can block the photo. Also any aerial view beyond 500 feet high is ok. No one ever said you have a right to hide what is observable from public space.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: WOW not even one comment supporting taking privacy away

“Go figure, little mikee posts”

Have you not figured out that your name calling in nearly every post just make you look like an uninformed moron?

You argue like a three year old.

You used to post a good argument here and there. Lately, your childish insults take away from every argument you make. You are doing your case a real disservice.

Dohn Joe (user link) says:

Open Book Lifestyle

I once tried that experiment with my life – to live it as an open book. The result was that 4 out of every 5 people I knew no longer associate with me for one reason or another. I have 2 conclusions from this:
1) “I have nothing to hide” only works if all the small-minded and stuffed-shirt types vanish from the earth.
2) This experiment is an excellent way to find out who like you because of who you are (not “what” you are in society or what they can use you for) and to weed out all the rest.

Anonymous Coward says:

I read something that someone posted somewhere and it debunked this bullshit without the need for a paper.

It was something along the lines of: We do nothing wrong when we use the bathroom, make love to our spouse, or get dressed in the morning, but clearly we are not unjustified in wanting privacy in those situations.

Conor T. says:


“Comprehensive transparency is a nightmare”

It dawns on me that if we accept that there is a need for privacy and a discomfort with transparency, then why do we constantly demand it from companies and politicians.

If we are allowed make arguments that I do not want my employer to know I’m looking for another job, then surely the company of government will have similarly valid arguments.

I’m divided on this issue. Only the entity desires the privacy, your employer feels entitled to know that you are looking for a job because it is in their interest to start looking for a new employee. The citizen feels entitled to know what the gov a signing them up to. Who draws the line? Who trumps who?

I don’t think i have a point, but there are my thoughts.

btr1701 (profile) says:


As a law enforcement officer myself, I’ve run into the “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide” argument quite often from fellow cops and I always respond with a scenario:

Say you pull me over on the side of the road and ask to search my car. I say no and request you get a warrant. You say “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide.”

I respond, “Okay, I’ll make you a deal. I’ll give you consent to search my car if, after you’re done, you allow me to drive to your home and search it. Look through all your personal files, paw through your wife’s underwear drawer, inventory your medicine cabinet, check out your kids rooms, and look through your internet browsing history.”

I ask them if they’d be willing to make such a deal, because, after all, if they have nothing to hide, having a total stranger ransack their private spaces should be no big deal.

The answer I receive is usually uncomfortable silence.

Barbara (profile) says:

Nothing To Hide

When I was young, I would have said, “I have nothing to hide”. But experience has shown me that having nothing to hide does not protect one from being compromised or even victimized. I don’t believe in generic sweeps either … looking for a reason to initiate an action against people is not as necessary as investigating an element imminent danger. But, what is happening frequently is that people can have their privacy violated for long periods of time, even indefinitely, without any legal process whatsoever!

TDR says:

Quite a noticeable bias against the Person A type, without a single person here even acknowledging that bias. Such as automatically assuming that said person is always corrupt and obsessed with control and has no understanding of morality. If such things are true about a person, they are NOT a Christian no matter what they say – the faith is shown through actions, not words. Paul himself wrote that in the New Testament – “faith without action is dead.”

In other words, don’t judge Christians because you’ll be guilty of the same thing you accuse them of. Actually look at what those who claim that title are doing with their lives, the “fruit” they are producing, as Jesus put it. If it’s good fruit – patience, honesty, forgiveness, love, etc. – then the person is indeed trying to live by their faith and should not be ridiculed or judged. If the fruit is not good, you’ll be able to tell. Lumping all those who go by the title Christian together is wrong and an act of gross negligence.

A true Christian, by the way, understands as well that the faith is meaningless if it’s forced. I will say it again: the faith is meaningless if it’s forced. Christians are supposed to share God’s message and love, but only he can make a heart willing to receive it. It’s just unfortunate that a lot of people, including Christians, tend to forget that.

And a real Christian, Al, doesn’t expect privilege. They understand that the life of faith is one of service and love to God and to one another. Jesus was never about privilege, and neither are those who honestly try to live as he did. I do understand that it’s sometimes hard to tell apart the modern day Pharisees – who outwardly profess themselves as Christians but who in reality are NOT – from real Christians for someone who isn’t overly familiar with the faith, though.

Just remember that Jesus said that not all who call him Lord are actually his – he knows who the pretenders are and who aren’t.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:


I totally agree; but will add that often the people who
think “you have nothing to hide if you are honest” routinely hide stuff. The police, for example, often use that line (as the article states) but seldom are transparent themselves.

I would be willing to have less privacy if we had more transparency – but the people who say it is not important apparently think it is very important for them.

This is especially true of secrecy – the main purpose of which is to protect the guilty.

radii says:

privacy like copyright - automatic but must be protected

In America when you put pen to paper or fingers to keypad, etc your copyright on your original creation is implicit, automatic, a given … yet if you do nothing to note or protect or declare this copyright you will be stolen from and it will be hard for you to prove your ownership rights

Privacy works much the same way now in America – we have 4th and 14th Amendment rights to privacy under the US Constitution, but these rights are regularly trampled, and in the past several years especially – due to technology and the younger generation not having any understanding nor respect for privacy – the very notion of privacy has eroded dramatically … privacy must be declared, proclaimed, defended, fought for … these new biometric vending machines will be the worst yet – asking you to give away your most precious personal data to private companies (linked to right-wing groups usually) to be bought and sold like a commodity

The pendulum will swing back soon enough – with some hipster group of smartypantses declaring that all technological means to gather personal data should be resisted and it will become hip … then we will have 3 classes: those who are ignorant of the whole issue, those who defy technological data gathering, and those who embrace/ignore it

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