If You've Got Nothing To Hide, You've Actually Got Plenty To Hide

from the some-analysis dept

The line "if you've got nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about" is used all too often in defending surveillance overreach. It's been debunked countless times in the past, but with the line being trotted out frequently in response to the NSA revelations, it's time for yet another debunking, and there are two good ones that were recently published. First up, we've got Moxie Marlinspike at Wired, who points out that, you're wrong if you think you've got nothing to hide, because our criminal laws are so crazy, that anyone sifting through your data would likely be able to pin quite a few crimes on you if they just wanted to.

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.

Furthermore, he points out, that one of the big reasons why laws are changed is because people realize that the laws don't make sense for the current times -- but that's much more difficult if law enforcement is sniffing through all your data and penalizing you any time they've found you've done something wrong.
Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100% effective, such that any potential law offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed. If perfect law enforcement had been a reality in Minnesota, Colorado, and Washington since their founding in the 1850s, it seems quite unlikely that these recent changes would have ever come to pass. How could people have decided that marijuana should be legal, if nobody had ever used it? How could states decide that same sex marriage should be permitted, if nobody had ever seen or participated in a same sex relationship?

The cornerstone of liberal democracy is the notion that free speech allows us to create a marketplace of ideas, from which we can use the political process to collectively choose the society we want. Most critiques of this system tend to focus on the ways in which this marketplace of ideas isn’t totally free, such as the ways in which some actors have substantially more influence over what information is distributed than others.
Meanwhile, over at Mashable, Julian Sanchez gives a much more direct explanation for why everyone has something to hide:
Some of the potentially sensitive facts those records expose becomes obvious after giving it some thought: Who has called a substance abuse counselor, a suicide hotline, a divorce lawyer or an abortion provider? What websites do you read daily? What porn turns you on? What religious and political groups are you a member of?

Some are less obvious. Because your cellphone's "routing information" typically includes information about the nearest cell tower, those records are also a kind of virtual map showing where you spend your time — and, when aggregated with others, who you like to spend it with.
Furthermore, he points out the elitist obnoxiousness of the claim that you shouldn't worry about overly broad surveillance, just because you might not be a target:
However, that seems like an awfully narrow way to think about the importance of privacy. Folks don't usually say (aloud, anyway), "I'm white, why should I care about racism?" or, "My political and religious views are too mainstream to ever be restricted, so why should I care about the First Amendment?"

We don't say such things not only because we care about other people's rights as well as our own happiness, but also because we understand that we benefit indirectly from living in a certain kind of society. You may not be interested in protesting, criticizing the government or debating fringe political views — but as a citizen of a democracy, subject to the laws the democratic process produces, you're better off in a system where those things are allowed to happen.
So, yes, even if you don't think you have something to hide, you do, and you should be concerned about the basic civil liberties and civil rights of those around you.

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  1. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
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    horse with no name, 13 Jun 2013 @ 5:40pm

    Crying because of effeciencies

    It's absurd to the point of being criminally bad comedy to read this sort of post here on Techdirt. I had to re-read it a couple of times to get a grip, because I was laughing so hard watching you twist and turn and try to justify your positions which is just not justifiable.

    Quite simply, all the PRISM really does is use technology to collect and catalog more legal information than generally could be obtained by an agent working alone. It's a use of technology, no different from any other, and the use of such technology in law enforcement is inevitable. What is theoretically public knowledge (essentially anything shared with a third party) can be collected, and with the right technology, it's possible to collect it and index it in a manner that some meaning can be extracted.

    It's no different from the basic axiom here that piracy is an inevitable result of technology. If you think that piracy is unstoppable because of technology, you need to accept the idea that PRISM (and other similar programs) are really no different. You may not like their goals or results, but the source is the very same: technology.

    Remember, 30 years ago you could copy music to a cassette tape and share it, but the ability to do it at a volume level that really meant anything was limited. Now it is not. Prism is the same thing, while collecting those records and information might have been impossible 30 years ago, today technology allows for it.

    All the whining about the 4th amendment doesn't add up to much, mostly because, when applied to each single piece of information, their is no violaiton of the 4th amendment, no different than the theory here that there is no law broken for sending a 0 or a 1 to someone in pirating a file. When you stand back a bit and realize that the 1s and 0s add up to a pirated file, the situation looks different - but you argue routinely that it is not or should not be. Well, when you step back from the fine grain of a single data point, you can't suddenly claim that the 4th amendment is violated because of the volume of non-offending actions.

    You don't like it, I get that. Your objections go against you general world view however. If technology allows, where is the problem?

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