Whenever the subject of government surveillance comes up, the refrain I most often hear is, “If you have nothing to hide, what’s there to worry about?” This attitude strikes me as wrong on so many levels, it boggles my mind that so many otherwise intelligent people would freely offer it as a justification for their passive acceptance of the wholesale invasion of their privacy that is being perpetrated on a daily basis by the likes of the National Security Agency.
First of all, let’s get real. There are probably very few of us who literally have nothing to hide, whether it’s that one time we mistakenly smoked a joint thinking it was a clove cigarette or the time we cheated on an algebra test in the ninth grade. Others may of course have slightly more incriminating skeletons in the closets, such as illicit love affairs, x-rated web surfing habits, or unreported income. Then of course there are those of us who might simply enjoy reading dissenting political views that the government might not approve of.
Under our system of mass surveillance, none of these things is truly private. As we know thanks to the leaks of whistleblower Edward Snowden, the NSA is intercepting all emails, storing the metadata of all our phone calls, and tracking all internet activity. This data is being stored in perpetuity for easy access at any point in the future. That is a huge amount of power for the government to possess – the ability to blackmail anyone at any time for any reason. That ninth grade algebra test can and will be used against you, if you were foolish enough to discuss it over the phone or by email.
And of course, we know that the government has resorted to these methods in the past. In the FBI’s COINTELPRO program of the 60s and 70s, antiwar and civil rights activists (including Martin Luther King, Jr.) were targeted for personal destruction using blackmail, character assassination and the use of private information to put strains on interpersonal relationships. One favored tactic of the FBI was to forge hostile letters that were sent to friends and acquaintances of activists to sow dissension and division within the ranks of the movement. Information gleaned from surveillance was essential to make these fake letters seem realistic.
The tactics worked. By the early 70s, the division and suspicion among black power groups had essentially destroyed the movement. If the tactics worked once, they will most likely work again, and there’s no reason to think that the government wouldn’t misuse its power in such a way in the future (assuming of course that they aren’t already doing it right now).
On a more fundamental level though, the “nothing to hide” argument is such a surrender of basic privacy that it makes me wonder whether people possess any real self-respect at all or whether they’ve just forgotten that once upon a time there were notions of personal boundaries and divisions between private and public life.
I often wonder whether the people who offer the “nothing to hide” argument would object to peeping toms looking at them through their bedroom window while they sleep or make love. What if the peeping tom worked for the government, would that be okay? After all, unless you are breaking the law or engaged in terrorist activities, you shouldn’t object to a little surveillance, a little invasion of your privacy, right?
The paradox of the “nothing to hide” argument is that simply by asserting your right to privacy, you are placing yourself under suspicion. If 99% of the population has decided to surrender their privacy in the interest of security, and you belong to that crazy 1% that feels there ought to be some limits on what the government is permitted to do, you are going to automatically look like you are up to no good. After all, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.
Well this is where I draw the line. I want the government to know that simply on principle I object to them reading my emails, collecting my metadata, tracking my internet activity, listening to my phone calls, peaking in my window or whatever else they may be doing. That’s my personal space and they have no right to invade it.
I don’t care whether I am talking on the phone to my wife about whether we need milk from the grocery store or whether I am sending an invitation to a house party that I am organizing, I don’t want anyone listening to my phone calls or reading my emails. That’s my business.
In short, mind your own business you peeping toms.