Privacy Is Not Secrecy; Debunking The 'If You've Got Nothing To Hide…' Argument

from the well-done dept

We’ve all heard the “if you’ve got nothing to hide, what are you complaining about” argument concerning violations of privacy. In fact, it seems to come up in nearly every blog post we do on the subject — especially on stories about TSA scans and gropes. There have been plenty of attempts over the year to debunk this faulty line of arguing, and Michael Scott points us to a lengthy, but excellent, article by Daniel Solove that explains why privacy matters, even if you’ve got nothing to hide. The article actually goes through a bunch of the counter arguments that people bring up (such as asking people to hand over their credit card bills or asking them to share naked photos), but Solove points out that these sorts of extreme responses don’t even get to the crux of the matter. It’s not just about the stuff we want to keep secret:

Commentators often attempt to refute the nothing-to-hide argument by pointing to things people want to hide. But the problem with the nothing-to-hide argument is the underlying assumption that privacy is about hiding bad things. By accepting this assumption, we concede far too much ground and invite an unproductive discussion about information that people would very likely want to hide. As the computer-security specialist Schneier aptly notes, the nothing-to-hide argument stems from a faulty “premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong.” Surveillance, for example, can inhibit such lawful activities as free speech, free association, and other First Amendment rights essential for democracy.

The deeper problem with the nothing-to-hide argument is that it myopically views privacy as a form of secrecy. In contrast, understanding privacy as a plurality of related issues demonstrates that the disclosure of bad things is just one among many difficulties caused by government security measures.

It goes on to note that even if you have nothing to hide, there are plenty of reasons why a loss of privacy should concern you:

One such harm, for example, which I call aggregation, emerges from the fusion of small bits of seemingly innocuous data. When combined, the information becomes much more telling. 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.

Another potential problem with the government’s harvest of personal data is one I call exclusion. Exclusion occurs when people are prevented from having knowledge about how information about them is being used, and when they are barred from accessing and correcting errors in that data. Many government national-security measures involve maintaining a huge database of information that individuals cannot access. Indeed, because they involve national security, the very existence of these programs is often kept secret. This kind of information processing, which blocks subjects’ knowledge and involvement, is a kind of due-process problem. It is a structural problem, involving the way people are treated by government institutions and creating a power imbalance between people and the government. To what extent should government officials have such a significant power over citizens? This issue isn’t about what information people want to hide but about the power and the structure of government.

There’s a lot more in the article as well, and it seems like this will be a good one to point people to the next time they make this bogus argument.

Filed Under: , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Privacy Is Not Secrecy; Debunking The 'If You've Got Nothing To Hide…' Argument”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Christopher (profile) says:

As I keep on saying EVERYONE has something to hide that they don’t want other people to know about.

That can be that they are attracted to black women, that can be that they are attracted to men, etc.

It’s time to stop with the bunk that people have ‘nothing to hide’ unless we totally legalize everything save murder, forcible rape, stealing from someone, physically assaulting another person, and forcing someone to do or not do something that they do not or do wish to do (sexual or not, regardless of age or lack of age).

THEN, people will have ‘nothing to hide’ because the police will not be able to look at something you are doing, look up an obscure law because they don’t like what you are doing, and put your butt in jail for it.

Christopher (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Ah, but I have to point out that AT ONE TIME, a black man having sex with white women and men who were attracted to and having sex with men was illegal.

So, that does still fit into what I posted.

Until we limit out laws to what I laid out above….. we are going to have them used WAY too often to force religious and non-religious ‘morality’ (more like people’s personal likes and dislikes) on various groups.

Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile) says:

Doing nothing wrong.

I’ve never found that argument to be anything more than a cheap way to push the burden of proof onto the unaccused.

“If you’ve got nothing to hide” won’t save you when any number of government agencies are free to sift through everything until they can extrapolate an actionable mountain out of your previously private molehills.

There are people in prison who had nothing to hide and did nothing wrong. The level of effort put into fitting them for the crime vastly outweighs the search for evidence to the contrary. Give anyone enough data and they can start cobbling together correlation with a minimum of effort.

The other key is another hackneyed phrase: “Give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile.” The article makes the point that privacy isn’t handed over in one big, all-encompassing chunk. It’s whittled away until there’s nothing left. Legislative creep thanks to the unwinnable Wars against Terror and Drugs has progressively opened every US citizen to a variety of “ongoing” investigations that won’t end until someone can find something to use against you.

This doesn’t even touch on the abuse of information that’s already freely available to government agencies. Multiple cases of government employees accessing records just because they have the access have been reported. Here’s one:

There’s no reason for a government employee to be searching a celebrity’s records other than morbid curiosity. You sit someone in front of a wide array of private information long enough and bad things will happen. Humans are like that. And to expect that just handing over an incredible amount of information to anyone, much less a government agency (most of whom run unchecked or with a bare minimum of oversight), and expecting it only to be used “correctly” is sheer ignorance.

Add to this the fact that the government wants this to be a one-way street and it’s even more disturbing. They want every citizen to be an open book, but they throw around “state secrets” and “interest of national security” whenever anyone asks for a peek behind their curtains. That will also never change. This is also standard human behavior, especially with those who will always have the law on their side. Always. Because if the law becomes inconvenient, it gets changed or re-interpreted.

Of all the differences between the “haves” and “have-nots,” this is the gap that increases the most year after year. Why the hell do we, as taxpayers and citizens, need to jump through regulatory hoops (like FOIA requests) just to get a half-assed and mostly redacted answer from our government. It’s our government and yet, it seems to find the most fulfillment in steadily making life worse for its constituents.

They also thrive on the fact that there is very little rollback on legislation. Once it’s on the books, it never comes off. It only gets added to, tacked onto unrelated bills or shoved through during midnight sessions. It’s gone well past erosion. (A term that cheapens what’s actually happening, suggesting that it’s “natural”. In other words, unstoppable. You can’t change “nature.”) At this point, it’s strip-mining.

Yeah. “Nothing to hide.” Not even my naked contempt for every single politician and law enforcement official that uses any shitty excuse to extend their power and marginalize their citizens into a loose confederation of “suspects.”

ohb1knewbie (profile) says:

Re: It will always be so...

Very well said. As you stated it has and always will be thus… note the life spans below the quotes.

“Give me three sentences written by the most innocent man, and I will find a reason to hang him”
Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642)

?Laws: We know what they are, and what they are worth! They are spider webs for the rich and mighty, steel chains for the poor and weak, fishing nets in the hands of the government.?
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865)

“There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”
Ayn Rand (1905-1982)
(Sorry for referencing Ayn Rand but on this point she was correct.)

Fzzr (profile) says:


He talks about things like “naked images” and “credit card bills” in the general category of things that people almost always want privacy for, that only the extreme/strawman form of “nothing to hide” would want to access, and contrasts them with things the government is likely to collect. Except… the government takes naked images in airports and is trying to persuade all foreign passengers to the US to allow the US to save their credit card information for 15 years.

Colin (profile) says:

In Ontario we are currently having a bit of a discussion about a police request to collect DNA from a smallish group of people in a town in order to determine if one of them might be the culprit in a murder that happened last September. “If you’ve got nothing to hide” is a huge part of the argument made by the piggies, with the implied threat that should you refuse, you will be put under greater scrutiny. So far I’ve seen nothing in the media about what will happen to the DNA results and any remaining biological material collected once the investigation is over.

Christopher (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Usually, it goes into some BIG government database somewhere…. which is the reason why I refused when they were investigating a little girl I knew getting raped 6 years ago to give a sample unless they signed an agreement saying that after I was cleared, the material in question would be destroyed.

I told them I was fine with giving them a sample for exculpatory purposes… but I damned well was not going to have my DNA sitting somewhere where someone can use the various methods they have to ‘copy it’, plant it at a crime scene, and get me sent to prison/jail.

Yes, I sound paranoid…. but considering some of my viewpoints on some subjects ranging from sexuality to feminism being out of control today? I’m not really, and even my mother and father who don’t share those viewpoints agree with me on that.

HothMonster says:

Re: Re:

The IP you are using must be flagged by his software. Lots of ad spammers use proxies, you might be using one they frequent. I have never had any problems bouncing a connection in here. Only time I got the “moderator must approve” post message was linking to an Australian news article. Apparently his nanny software doesn’t trust aussies either, I don’t blame it.

Because it wants to see what you wrote before it posts has nothing to do with violating your privacy or exposing your identity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Sorry - what?!?!?

If you’re so into privacy rights, why is that you won’t allow this post I am writing right now via a proxy site to be posted without being reviewed first?

I don’t understand – are you implying that the “review” somehow removes your privacy? If so, please explain.

If not, what the hell does it have to do with the discussion?

Daemon_ZOGG (profile) says:

"Why privacy matters, even if you've got nothing to hide"

1.”The nothing-to-hide argument stems from a faulty “premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong.” Surveillance, for example, can inhibit such lawful activities as free speech, free association, and other First Amendment rights essential for democracy.” 2. “This issue isn’t about what information people want to hide but about the power and the structure of government. It IS a structural problem, involving the way people are treated by government institutions and creating a power imbalance between people and the government.” .. ‘nuf said! 😉

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Can we bring Mark Zuckerberg into the discussion?

This isn’t news, but if we are going to talk about privacy, I think Facebook should be included in the mix.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg Says The Age of Privacy is Over: “Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told a live audience yesterday that if he were to create Facebook again today, user information would by default be public, not private as it was for years until the company changed dramatically in December.”

vbevan (profile) says:

A quote I liked

I read Little Brother by Cory Doctorow recently. What scared me was that the laws for what happened in that book already exist, they just haven’t been used quite that freely yet.

In any case, this article did remind me of a quote from that book that showed yet another example of why wanting privacy does not always mean you are hiding something:

There’s something really liberating about having some corner of your life that’s yours, that no one gets to see except you. It’s a little like nudity or taking a dump. Everyone gets naked every once in a while. Everyone has to squat on the toilet. There’s nothing shameful, deviant or weird about either of them. But what if I decreed that from now on, every time you went to evacuate some solid waste, you’d have to do it in a glass room perched in the middle of Times Square, and you’d be buck naked?

Even if you’ve got nothing wrong or weird with your body — and how many of us can say that? — you’d have to be pretty strange to like that idea. Most of us would run screaming. Most of us would hold it in until we exploded.

It’s not about doing something shameful. It’s about doing something private. It’s about your life belonging to you.

doctor says:

The interesting point of wig/cancer book should be extended out further. What if there was also an acting dvd that was purchased. This could mean learning to play a role about a person with cancer, or, could be buying gifts for someone with cancer and the dvd is not a part of the mix.

The creation of a “profile” based on items chosen at a life’s buffet, with no context, is “making a case.” And this is the problem. The inference that all of the pieces of your life add up to what we say the add up to, is the issue.

In most countries on is guilty until proven innocent, and the way in which you prove you are innocent is to prove your story for the wig, the book, and the dvd is better then the story created by the antagonist. the problem there is, the antagonist gets to go first in all matters of justice, and you have to not only undo what they said, but create a more believable narrative for the parts of your life that have been selected based on the fact that they do in fact prove guilt when isolated out and assembled out of context.

Gina says:


The “If you’ve got nothing to hide” is disturbing for many reasons. If they ask me questions about my private life if it has to do with a case or something it’s more understandable but they should have no right to WATCH my private life if they were to. I don’t think they have a need to view me and my fiance’s sex life or when we take a shower or go to the bathroom…I’ve got plenty to hide all right but none of it’s illegal, just PRIVATE.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...