December 04, 2015 | Ruth Coustick-Deal

Responding to "Nothing to hide, Nothing to fear"

Every time we talk about mass surveillance, privacy or the security services’ powers we and our supporters find ourselves at the other end of that familiar phrase, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”. It's time to challenge that.

This powerful sentence does many things:

  • It encourages a complete trust in state powers - that you will never face wrongful suspicion or misuse of powers, for only the guilty are affected by mass surveillance.

  • It encourages people to embrace their own innocence, to look inwards, and not to look at how other people have been treated or targeted.

  • And after all, this is a climate of fear. Being told that nothing to hide means you have nothing to fear is reassuring. We all want nothing to fear.

  • It also introduces the vague threat that just maybe, if you haven’t behaved, you do have something to fear. Not something to challenge, or criticise, but to fear.

  • And so it keeps us in our place.

So let’s give some answers back:

I wrote a piece about how 'surveillance makes us less safe' earlier in the year. I will say again that I believe we should choose to look outwards, and think about all the people who really need the protections of privacy, and all the examples of when they've had that right invaded:

These are all people for whom surveillance turns into real, felt harms. The vulnerability created by an all-watching surveillance state affects everyone who needs their privacy. When they are listed out like this, you can see how so many people fall into one of these categories. Perhaps you find yourself in this list, or know people who are.

Even if a service is something that you are not using in your day to day life, whether that is a hospital, a library, or the local bus service, we understand that those things should still exist for those who rely on them. In the same way, if one person does not feel that they actively need the right to privacy, we should campaign and fight for all those for whom privacy, and the security it provides, is vital.

However, there are a lot of other perspectives on the cliche, "nothing to hide, nothing to fear", and here are some of the best ripostes our members shared with us as their preferred answers:

  • "Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say."
    -- Edward Snowden, US government whistle-blower and former NSA worker
  • "The premise [is] that privacy is about hiding a wrong. It's not. Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect."
    -- Bruce Schneier, computer security and privacy specialist
  • “Equally, what it means to be a free and fulfilled human being is to have a place we can go and be free of the judgmental eyes of other people. There are things we are willing to tell our physician or our lawyer or our psychologist or our spouse or our best friend that we would be mortified for the rest of the world to learn. People can very easily say that they don’t value privacy, but their actions negate the authenticity of that belief.”
    --“Why privacy matters" TED Talk by Glenn Greenwald, lawyer, journalist and author
  • “There is the inherently selfish response of ‘I have nothing to hide’. Well it is true that I am not ill. It is true that I am not blind. But I still want to live in a world that has hospitals. I still want to live on a street that has accessibility for blind people. And it is also the case that I want to live in a world where everyone has privacy, thus dignity, confidentiality and integrity in their daily lives, without having to ask for it, to beg it from a master. Because it is the case that when you ask someone for those things, they may not grant them. And then you will know that you are not free”.
    --Jacob Appelbaum, computer security researcher and hacker
  • "You may consider yourself law-abidingly white as snow, and it won’t matter a bit. What does matter is whether you set off the red flags in the mostly-automated surveillance... When you frequently stop at a certain bar on your way driving home from work, the Department of Driving Licenses will draw certain conclusions as to your eligibility for future driving licenses – regardless of the fact that you think they serve the world’s best reindeer meatballs in that bar, and never had had a single beer there. People will stop thinking in terms of what is legal, and start acting in self-censorship to avoid being red-flagged, out of pure self-preservation."
    --Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish pirate party.
  • "The broad purposes of the surveillance and its secret nature prevents open debate and deliberation in Parliament, thereby preventing democratic authorisation and oversight. "If you have nothing to fear, you have nothing to hide" is not the language of a democratic society. Our right to privacy forms the bedrock upon which all of our other rights and freedoms are built. The Lords Constitutional Committee (2009) agreed that "Mass surveillance has the potential to erode privacy. As privacy is an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom, its erosion weakens the constitutional foundations on which democracy and good governance have traditionally been based in this country."
    --The Don't Spy on Us coalition (of which ORG is a member)


Share image by Brian Yap (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Comments (10)

  1. John:
    Dec 04, 2015 at 05:56 PM

    Fantastic article. Should be reproduced as giant posters and and pasted onto every billboard in every town.
    Thank you

  2. Loweel:
    Dec 04, 2015 at 06:58 PM

    Well, don't make that hard. When people says they don't care of privacy because they have nothing to hide, I just ask their email credentials. And they shut up.

  3. David:
    Dec 04, 2015 at 08:00 PM

    And, to turn it around: if we have nothing to fear why did the state hide its practice of mass surveillance from us?

  4. Übermensch:
    Dec 05, 2015 at 02:13 PM

    Thanks for this great cover-all to an often repeated, but little understood, phrase.

  5. Peter:
    Dec 06, 2015 at 05:53 AM


    curtains ?

    if the government announced it was steaming open every letter and placing tv cameras in every bedroom, there might be a little more outcry from the technologically under-educated...

  6. Peter:
    Dec 06, 2015 at 07:04 AM

    You imply but don't directly mention that often the wrong is done by a member of the surveilling bodies. IE Police selling addresses, RTA staff giving out addresses, even people within those bodies that have no authorisation to access your info but are able to as a result of poor or non-existent controls within the organisations.

    There have been numerous examples over the years of these types of incidents, yet they continue to happen. Given the emerging effort to capture even more data the risk is increased many fold

  7. Ver Greeneyes:
    Dec 07, 2015 at 11:27 AM

    Good article, though the last two points should not be gendered.

    For one thing, I'm pretty sure swatting mostly happens to men, because most streamers are men right now (though I'm not sure if there's any data the gender breakdown of swatting). In addition, men receive more serious abuse overall online (and the vast majority of harsh language) than women, though women receive more online abuse of a sexual nature (presumably because trolls know it affects women more). Similarly, an estimated 40% of cyber stalking victims are male, though only an estimated 25% of real life stalking victims are male (still a significant number). These numbers may be skewed by gender differences in self-reporting - men are more likely to hide their abuse than women. In any case, these things are awful regardless of the gender of the victim.

  8. Simon:
    Dec 09, 2015 at 06:53 PM

    When you allow the government to provide you with and be complete control of your healthcare and education, provide a substantial proportion of population with housing and employment, you effectively surrender your life and everything to the state. No point protesting about privacy.

    If you are against mass surveillance and privacy, you should vote for those who believe in a free society with free enterprise and free speech where people are free to chose. If you don't, then you not only have nothing to hide, but you have nothing at all. Period.

  9. CH:
    Dec 09, 2015 at 08:12 PM

    "Women" in this article should be replaced with "Men or Women" or "Persons" ;)

  10. CH:
    Dec 09, 2015 at 08:13 PM

    Sorry Ver, missed your comment on gender^^^