Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’

Kaye Beach

August 2, 2011

If you are ready to really think about privacy, read this article.

If you don’t think you need to be thinking about privacy, may I suggest that you will be thinking about it a lot in the near future  when you no longer have any.

You may have nothing to hide but you still have a lot to lose.

Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’

by Daniel Solove

When the government gathers or analyzes personal information, many people say they’re not worried. “I’ve got nothing to hide,” they declare. “Only if you’re doing something wrong should you worry, and then you don’t deserve to keep it private.”

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.” In its most compelling form, it is an argument that the privacy interest is generally minimal, thus making the contest with security concerns a foreordained victory for security.

The nothing-to-hide argument is everywhere. 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.” Variations of nothing-to-hide arguments frequently appear in blogs, letters to the editor, television news interviews, and other forums. One blogger in the United States, in reference to profiling people for national-security purposes, declares: “I don’t mind people wanting to find out things about me, I’ve got nothing to hide! Which is why I support [the government’s] efforts to find terrorists by monitoring our phone calls!”

The argument is not of recent vintage. One of the characters in Henry James’s 1888 novel, The Reverberator, muses: “If these people had done bad things they ought to be ashamed of themselves and he couldn’t pity them, and if they hadn’t done them there was no need of making such a rumpus about other people knowing.”

I encountered the nothing-to-hide argument so frequently in news interviews, discussions, and the like that I decided to probe the issue. I asked the readers of my blog, Concurring Opinions, whether there are good responses to the nothing-to-hide argument. I received a torrent of comments:

  • My response is “So do you have curtains?” or “Can I see your credit-card bills for the last year?”
  • So my response to the “If you have nothing to hide … ” argument is simply, “I don’t need to justify my position. You need to justify yours. Come back with a warrant.”
  • I don’t have anything to hide. But I don’t have anything I feel like showing you, either.
  • If you have nothing to hide, then you don’t have a life.
  • Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.
  • It’s not about having anything to hide, it’s about things not being anyone else’s business.
  • Bottom line, Joe Stalin would [have] loved it. Why should anyone have to say more?

On the surface, it seems easy to dismiss the nothing-to-hide argument. Everybody probably has something to hide from somebody. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn declared, “Everyone is guilty of something or has something to conceal. All one has to do is look hard enough to find what it is.” Likewise, in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novella “Traps,” which involves a seemingly innocent man put on trial by a group of retired lawyers in a mock-trial game, the man inquires what his crime shall be. “An altogether minor matter,” replies the prosecutor. “A crime can always be found.

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4 responses to “Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’

  1. Your right… Another reply might be.
    ‘If you want to put a camera in my house then I can put one in yours… What’s the problem if you have nothing to hide’…

  2. That, “if you’ve got nothing to hide, then you’ve got nothing to worry about”, argument never made sense to me. Not all things private are illegal. Some things are just private – pure and simple. In other words, none of your business. A while back, I Googled my name and found these things about me: My address…My age (sixtyish)…Level of wealth…Lives alone…Plus a bonus map to my address. If a simple Google search can produce a brochure for criminals, imagine what…

  3. I prefer to not be paranoid. The arguments above do nothing to dissuade me from privacy matters don’t concern me at all. I don’t try to dissuade you from a paranoid concern, why should you try to argue against my desire to not discuss privacy issues?

  4. Steve, with the explosion of computing technology plus ever permissive personal data collection and information sharing policies, many people are simply not aware what is being done or the possible consequences. That is why I post articles such as these-so that those who choose to read them might consider the issue more deeply.
    I wonder if you read the entire article.
    Either way, you are perfectly within your right not to care or not to know for that matter.
    I will continue to do everything I can to try and alert others to this largely unseen, rarely openly debated issue that is a terrible threat to the privacy and liberty of all.

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