"I've got nothing to hide" argument about security

Posted in Politics at 9:44 pm by ducky

There’s an interesting paper by Daniel J. Solove about security that refutes the “I’ve got nothing to hide” argument in defence of (or sometimes in downright favor of) the recent extra-legal government invasions of privacy. Early on, Solove distills the fundamental belief underlying the quips that people might make about privacy. I think this is a really great summary, so I want to repeat it:

Although there may be some cases in which the information might be sensitive or embarrassing to law-abiding citizens, the limited disclosure lessens the threat to privacy. Moreover, the security interest in detecting, investigating, and preventing terrorist attacks is very high and outweighs whatever minimal or moderate privacy interests law-abiding citizens may have in these particular pieces of information.

Solove makes various points about what privacy fundamentally is (a related group of things, not just disclosure of information). I’m not going to go into all of them. The strongest argument he makes is that invading privacy is, in my words, fundamentally abusive — that it sets up a grossly asymmetrical relationship between the government and its citizenry, with the government holding all the power.

He also notes that one bad part of the warrantless wiretapping is that by going outside the law, it broke a social contract with the citizenry. Basically, when the government writes law, it is sort of promising to its citizens that it is going to follow those laws.

He alluded to a slippery-slope argument, although IMHO he didn’t take it far enough. Therefore, I will: if the government doesn’t bother to follow wiretapping laws, what’s to stop it from ignoring laws against torturing its own citizens? There need to be laws about what the executive branch can and cannot do; there are a number of African countries that can demonstrate very keenly both what happens when the executive disregards laws and why we don’t want that.

One argument that he didn’t really make, and that I think should be shouted from the rooftops is the innocent do have something to fear from data gathering, specifically from data mining. Data mining is all about looking at statistical patterns and trends. Those can only give you correlations that lead to probabilities; they can tell you that people who rent Die Hard 3, read the Chicago Tribune regularly, and whose cars are white are more likely to be terrorists than the average. Thus the government might start rounding up people who match that profile. (Hey, anything in the name of security, right?)

Even if you believe that the US government would never never lock up people just for fitting a profile — this isn’t the Soviet Union, after all — it’s not hard to imagine that they might do more intensive surveillance. They might start following you around. Even if you have nothing to hide, it would probably freak you out to see big men in sunglasses following you around; that could cause great psychological harm. (And if you think you’d be fine with them following you around: how would you feel if your daughter told you she was scared because big men were following her around?)

Furthermore, innocence is in the eyes of the beholder. I have done a lot of gay-rights activism. There are some people who think that makes me spawn of Satan; what if they get to be in charge in a system where there are very loose controls on what a government is allowed to do “in the name of security”? I’m not sure my life would be entirely peaceful.

Maybe you aren’t worried because you aren’t in favor of gay rights. But no matter who you are or what you believe, there is something that you believe or do that other people think is really really wrong. Maybe you are Catholic. Maybe you are Protestant. Maybe you are atheist. Maybe you are into S&M. Maybe you have a hobby that burns fossil fuel. Maybe you believe in firm corporal discipline for your children. Maybe you are polygamous or polyamorous. Maybe you are a nudist. Something that you do or believe is going to be objectionable to others. Nobody is innocent in the eyes of all governments, so it’s worth your effort to make sure that your government respects the rights of its citizens. Of all its citizens.

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