What should you say when you are confronted by the assertion “Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear”? To begin, you must realize the power of this phrase is the hidden presumptive that only criminals have something to hide. It is important you don’t intellectualize your answer by asserting “we all have something to hide” (even if it’s true). Be ready and be bold and simply reply “there has never been a pogrom of the anonymous”. If folks don’t understand what a pogrom is, you could say something witty and snarky like, “You know, when the Pilgrims left England for the New World?”* Based on your audience, you might replace the word “Pogrom” with Purge, Persecution, or even Prosecution. Similarly, you could increase the inflammatory level by replacing “Pilgrims” with Jews, Japanese-Americans, or various other minorities unjustly interned. If you want to be less inflammatory you could simply say privacy is not hiding and nor is it criminal. However, by being less inflammatory you miss out on the opportunity to respond in kind with a presumptive that those who fear privacy are closet racists and autocrats. The power of this rebuttal is its counterpoint to the somewhat-Orwellian current trend to remove anonymity from social spheres and discourage meaningful political discourse in lieu of pre-formatted politicized posturing. Eventually, even you will be personally affected by this trend and if you read on we will show you why.
Now that you know what to say to folks who blithely parrot authoritarian slogans let’s talk about what is a concern and why you should consider more than just your most intimate details private. It wasn’t very long ago that the United States was changing Civil Rights laws, interning its own citizen minority groups, and dealing with mass protests. The slogan “Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear” is frequently employed in the justification of ubiquitous monitoring from CCTV in public spaces like traffic intersections, airports, grocery stores, downtown parks, and well, everywhere you go today. The rationale is a seemingly logical extension of safety protocols the public generally welcomed when employed in dark shopping mall parking lots and garages (where it seemed justifiable).
However, there is something important to remember: all the safety devices and monitoring of public spaces simply makes it more likely your would-be murderer is caught, after the fact. That’s right, once you are murdered and the Investigative Team shows up on site, they will (hopefully) reconstruct the events from the video and audio evidence and eventually track down the culprit. So, let’s dispense with the vanity that “Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear” is for your personal safety. We can argue constant monitoring helps preserve justice but that will be little solace for the individual victim. The “Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear” mentality justifies the intrusion of individual liberty for the promise of future prosecution, even though there is no demonstrable reduction in crime. It is simple logic: if monitoring cannot stop a crime, the only benefit is to assist in prosecution after the fact. Ask yourself how many more police could be put in parks if the private cost of surveillance became a public resource? Is the problem that policing is too costly or that there is too much to reasonably police?
Let’s look at an example. China shows us how too much law and order can be problematic. Even though China is a rapidly developing economic and world power, it is an autocratic regime. Most would argue that Chinese citizens are relatively well-behaved given measures of criminal behavior around the world. Why, then, does China need a complex monitoring system to police its people? You might be tempted to say “It is because China is a Communist Totalitarian State.” While that may be true (let’s not split hairs on “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”), the point of China’s surveillance system is not Soviet-Style command-and-control of its citizens but rather management of social disruption. Authoritarian states must be able to interpret the enforcement of laws after the fact because it is impossible to predict which citizens or groups might become a threat to the state; it is impossible to predict when law enforcement will need to compel and constrain citizen activity; it is impossible to predict the victims of the next political purge. In such a regime, the Politburo and Politics influence the enforcement and the interpretation of the law. For these reasons, it is impossible to ever have enough police on the streets.
But let’s stop picking on China. Let’s look at an example in the United States. Even if you aren’t planning on protesting and getting arrested for civil disobedience any time soon, let’s see a real life example of how this matters to your privacy and data. If you use Social Media, you may have received an email like this one from March of 2018.** You can read it yourself but it basically states that the recipient has been identified as linking to or “liking” the posts of social media accounts tied to “Russian Activists”, specifically the IRA. The email helpfully informs you that you aren’t in trouble (ludicrously implying in the negative case that is something to consider) and goes on to explain that someone, somewhere, with unknown authority has taken action to censor and delete the content of the identified accounts. You can’t access the accounts or their content any longer and there is no way to see what was posted online. It is hard to fathom how words and pictures that are not classified military secrets could be so subversive they must be purged from the public discourse of a free society. If we want to view specific examples of the threat posed to free society, we will have to resort to viewing IRA posts from another source. As an example, here are a few of the most high profile advertisements the IRA ran on Facebook in the 2nd Quarter of 2017.
Let your conscience be the judge but these words and pictures do not seem to be the work of some subversive mastermind but rather an easy way to harass an unresponsive rival government. It’s like the U.S. showed up to a formal dinner party dressed as a clown and Russia laughs at them for being under-dressed. Is the problem the pointing out of the fact or the fact itself? Regardless, surely there are subtleties only the “intelligence community” can know but let’s not get distracted from the point: how can words and pictures disrupt a democracy built on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the right to organize peaceably to redress our grievances with government? Ask yourself what kind of free society fears the political movements of its people and the propaganda of foreign entities? In what kind of free society is speech a threat to the government, or its legitimacy with its citizens? When the question is posed that way, It is hard to tell if we are talking about China, Russia, or the United States. Those who are anonymous have nothing to hide and nothing to fear.
*It is worthwhile to point out that there is an interesting relationship between religion and privacy in the United States. It is not simply the case that the original settlers were persecuted by the Church of England and its pontiff/monarch. Indeed, there is a long history of new arrivals to the New World being persecuted for their religion by those that arrived before them. Fast Forward to the modern era and there are many examples of religious leaders (e.g., Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard) whose true inclinations were exposed due to a discernable lack of discretion. The point is that religion is politics and they are both topics that polite people do not discuss with mere acquaintances. In a free society your worship and your politics are your own business.