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:
Victims of police misconduct. For example, Doreen Lawrence and her family were surveilled in attempts to smear them and undermine their fight for justice.
MPs need privacy in particular for their constituency work, which involves meeting with people who share very personal stories and situations, and challenging the actions of the government. For example, recently MPs confidential calls with prison staff were recorded and monitored.
Disabled people are often scared of speaking out about mistreatment because they are can be put under direct surveillance by both government bodies, and neighbours, to try and 'catch them out' as 'not really disabled'.
Environmental campaigners have for many years been under direct surveillance, particularly women who were deceived into having relationships with police officers.
Journalists are frequently at risk of big business and government surveillance tracking their leaks, their stories, their whistleblowers, and their criticism of the government and the police.
Whistle-blowers cannot expose wrong-doing, whether by the state or powerful businesses, in a world that always watches, but are meant to have special protections.
People of minority sexualities and identities can lose their families or jobs or security when robbed of the control over who they share their identity with.
Doctors, hospital workers and their patients expect to have confidentiality when discussing personal health.
Encryption advocates and researchers are monitored for what they know in case they discover existing secrets, or new knowledge of security and software, which the government can use.
Muslim community face racial profiling and Islamophobia.
Women stalked or tracked by abusive partners, which has become a problem so common that Women's Aid has a clear and prominent guide to hiding your tracks online on its website.
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: