Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have Nothing to Hide

Via the Chronicle of Higher Education, law professor Daniel J. Solove reveals all:

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.”

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.

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. 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.

A related problem involves secondary use. Secondary use is the exploitation of data obtained for one purpose for an unrelated purpose without the subject’s consent. How long will personal data be stored? How will the information be used? What could it be used for in the future? The potential uses of any piece of personal information are vast. Without limits on or accountability for how that information is used, it is hard for people to assess the dangers of the data’s being in the government’s control.

Yet another problem with government gathering and use of personal data is distortion. Although personal information can reveal quite a lot about people’s personalities and activities, it often fails to reflect the whole person. It can paint a distorted picture, especially since records are reductive—they often capture information in a standardized format with many details omitted.

Read the rest at Chronicle of Higher Education

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  • DrumsssSSsSSs

    It’s a ridiculous coincidence that an actual government uses this slogan.
    Are they serious?That slogan makes absolutely no sense unless it’s directed towards them.

    Can they bend ethics for benefits like that?

  • Anarchy Pony

    It’s not; “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” It’s; “if you comply with the state(and its benefactors) you have nothing to fear”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.crawford.50 Robert Crawford

    How about, “Unless you have reason to believe I’m doing something wrong, why are you looking at me? And by the way–don’t I know you?”

    One rarely treated aspect of this controversy is the common reference to “government” in discussions about privacy–government powers, government intrusiveness, and so forth–as if “government” were somehow a disconnected, hypothetical entity existing on some remote “other” plane. But government is actually made up of individual humans at varying levels of authority and accountability–and it is in the hands of individual humans, especially those closest to the citizenry, that the powers of a surveillance state can most clearly be seen as detrimental to human liberty.

    The cancer discussion is a case in point. In the hands of some very observant functionary hovering over a computer screen a thousand miles away, or even a surveillance computer program, the deduction from your actions that you have cancer could conceivably be sold to insurance companies, which might shy away from covering you. Bad enough.

    But let’s say instead that the person observing your actions–as it most probably would be–is a local official, with local connections and local powers–someone who actually knows you, your family, your employer, and your social network. Imagine how an interested local who possessed that information could conceivably use it against you, and you’re close to understanding how a surveillance state would actually work. Is he buddies with your employer–and will he counsel your employer to find a way to terminate you before you become a big chronic-illness liability? Want to keep your kids from finding out? Maybe you’ll take a lot less than you’re asking on that car you’re selling to pay for the chemo.

    But privacy doesn’t have to be about big secrets. The whole POINT of privacy, really, is not the hiding of secrets, especially from a remote higher power–but the keeping to yourself of things you don’t want to share with the people who surround you on a daily basis. Some of those things may be shameful–maybe you troll for porn on the net, or failed to secure a permit for that Christmas tree you cut down–but for the most part, they’re just PRIVATE. Your underwear is old and worn, and you can’t afford new. You hide a flabby roll around your belly. You’ve just had breast enhancement–or only one of them is real, since the mastectomy. Your kid or your wife is driving you crazy. You’re not sure you’re up to your new responsibilities on the job. That hideous acne crater on your chin took a half-pound of flesh-tone foundation to cover up. These are PERSONAL things. They’re INTIMATE things. We keep them private because they make us VULNERABLE–and invasions of our privacy, usually marketed to us as reducing our vulnerability, actually make us more vulnerable to the threats that are most likely to materialize against us: local threats, from local people, to everything from our personal dignity to our financial well-being to our lives.

    For myself, I guess I don’t worry too much about being observed at a distance by the state–simple numbers of people to watch give me a certain protection in that regard, unless the state finds reason to focus on me. But I’m deeply concerned about Deputy Bob or Mayor Bill–and all their friends and connections–knowing all my vulnerabilities and being able to use them, right here in the local life I actually lead.

  • BuzzCoastin

    the fake democratic governments frequently have something to hide
    and have no qualms about classifying it Top Secret & burying it for decades
    if you’re at a loss to defend your privacy
    use their arguments for everything they do being Top Secret
    but let’s face it
    at the end of the day
    they have way more info on you than you will ever have about them
    (birth certificate, SS #, Unemployment records, traffic citation record, drivers license, wedding license, dog license, car registration, insurance, credit report, tax records, Facebook et al, email, cell phone, hone phone, passport, airline records, credit card records, Easy Pass, … etc etc etc)

  • http://twitter.com/MilesToCode Miles to Code

    Install these cameras in government offices and broadcast them to the world. If they have nothing to hide it shouldn’t be a problem should it?

  • http://www.facebook.com/down.with.it Jay Rock

    “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.” …should really read, “If you think you must hide something from us then it must be bad.”. Problem 1: The entity speaking obviously presumes to know what is “bad”. Problem 2: The entity speaking is almost always involved in deciding what defines “bad”, which means they can also decide that “bad” has a different definition today than it did yesterday, or that “bad” means something different in the geographic region you happen to live in than in the neighboring region. This is presumptive authority, something the American Founders were all too familiar with and addressed by establishing “innocent until PROVEN guilty”. The authorities today want you to prove your innocence second by second through surveillance. It’s an abomination.

  • http://www.facebook.com/down.with.it Jay Rock

    “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.” …should really read, “If you think you must hide something from us then it must be bad.”. Problem 1: The entity speaking obviously presumes to know what is “bad”. Problem 2: The entity speaking is almost always involved in deciding what defines “bad”, which means they can also decide that “bad” has a different definition today than it did yesterday, or that “bad” means something different in the geographic region you happen to live in than in the neighboring region. This is presumptive authority, something the American Founders were all too familiar with and addressed by establishing “innocent until PROVEN guilty”. The authorities today want you to prove your innocence second by second through surveillance. It’s an abomination.

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