Friday, October 8, 2010

If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear

Before I present my opinions of the "nothing to hide" argument, can anyone tell me anything about the origin of this statement?  I've also seen the variant "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about".  I've been unsuccessful in finding any background information on the web, so if anyone has any info, please do leave me a comment!


This statement really makes me cringe and there once was a time when I agreed with it. I don't even know where this adage comes from, nor who said it first, nor in what context, but I used to state it as if it were fact; this is yet another example of me being a repeater (and after having googled the phrase it would appear that I am far from the only one!)

These are currently the main problems I have with this argument:
  • It confuses a want for privacy with prudishness or deceitfulness,
  • It fails to address the implications of data aggregation,
  • It fails to address the dangers of incrementalism,
  • It fails to address the security of the personal data gathered by CLOGs, not to mention how easily the data may be accessed in the future and by whom.
  • It does not take into account changes in legal statutes/social norms in the future,  
  • It ignores the hypocrisy demonstrated by the CLOGs who enjoy spouting this mantra,
  • It also ignores the question: Is this truly being done for my security?

"It’s not about having anything to hide, it’s about things not being anyone else’s business." 

I found the preceding quote in an essay titled 'I've Got Nothing to Hide' and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy by Daniel J. Solove, an Associate Professor at George Washington University Law School (available as a free pdf download here). It perfectly encapsulates my feelings on the matter.

I think the "nothing to hide" sentiment muddles the definition of privacy; it seems to make the assumption that as long as you are not ashamed of something then you shouldn't mind also exposing this "something" to other people as if things that you might not want others to know are tantamount to things that shame you or that are morally wrong. 

I am not ashamed of my sexual history, but that doesn't mean I would share the details of my sex life with just anyone, nor would I want anyone to record or publicize such information or activity without my explicit permission.  There are also thoughts, emotions, and even moments in time, which I will choose to share with a very close and few individuals, not because those thoughts/emotions/moments are morally wrong, embarrassing, sinful or dangerous, but because they are special and sometimes vulnerable moments, and they are my own.

Plainly, the "nothing to hide" argument confuses privacy with prudishness and/or deceitfulness and I think this mindset sometimes causes people to allow infringements on their privacy simply because they are made to feel guilty for not allowing the infringement almost as if wanting to hide something automatically makes that something "wrong".

Just because another person or entity wants to know something about me, and that something about me is nothing to be ashamed of, this does not automatically give them the right to know this information; only I have the authority to allow or disallow someone else from knowing something about me, as long as that something about me doesn't cause harm to someone else's person or property.

Putting the puzzle pieces together

The "nothing to hide" mantra also ignores the fact that the individual bits of data that one might not feel the need to "hide" can be put together with other bits of data gathered about oneself in order to create a larger profile of an individual.  What is scary is that the resulting profile can be run through algorithms in order to assess the "threat level" that this individual could potentially possess or to even predict possible crimes he or she might commit in the future.

One might be surprised of the types of profiling technologies currently being considered, developed or implemented by law enforcement around the world:
  • As described in this ABC News piece, there is software being developed to "predict criminal behavior" and "if the software proves successful, it could influence sentencing recommendations and bail amounts." (What does one say when WTF just doesn't cut it?!)
  • Then there is this article from The Guardian about a brain scanning technology being developed that allows one "to look deep inside a person's brain and read their intentions before they act."  And as the article suggests this technology "could be used to help interrogate criminals and assess prisoners before they are released [and] may be able to spot people who plan to commit crimes before they break the law." (Do the words "thoughtcrime" or "precrime" ring any bells?...Hello???!!!
  • There is also software being implemented known as Operation Blue C.R.U.S.H. that uses "statistical information to target crime hot spots and chronic perpetrators" this is a 2006 article from the Memphis Daily News and another by the Memphis Flyer from 2007.  These articles make the software sound innocuous enough and they talk about how it helps the police to focus its resources thereby more effectively reducing crime as well as costs.  But I also cannot deny my skepticism when I read statements such as this excerpt from the Memphis Flyer article: "The program also does not track the race of an offender. '[Ethnicity] doesn't directly figure in the data,' Janikowski says. 'The reality is that [with] arrests in Memphis, just like nationwide, the overwhelming number identified in criminal activity are young African-American men.'" The skeptic in me says that although they claim not to be "tracking" this information, you can almost bet that they are recording the ethnicity of those "identified in criminal activity" and so that data-set could easily be used at a later date.  And am I the only one to find it unsettling that this software was developed by IBM? o.O
  • Update: Then there's this article from the Washington Post from Dec 20th, 2010 about how "the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators." During their investigation WaPo also found that "the FBI is building a database with the names and certain personal information, such as employment history, of thousands of U.S. citizens and residents whom a local police officer or a fellow citizen believed to be acting suspiciously," and "the Department of Homeland Security sends its state and local partners intelligence reports with little meaningful guidance, and state reports have sometimes inappropriately reported on lawful meetings."  There is also a quote from a former CIA official who states that "some senior people in the intelligence community" question whether such a large-sweeping security profiling system is even an effective way to catch terrorists. 
  • Update:  And now in the wake of the 2013 revelations made by whistle-blower Edward Snowden regarding the NSA wiretapping program, there is this article from Bloomberg about how private companies in the US (everything from makers of hardware and software, banks, Internet security providers, satellite telecommunications companies, etc...) are sharing data about their customers with the NSA, CIA and FBI.  And you can bet that much of this data pertain to non-Amercian citizens as well...
There is also the danger of assuming that, just because you are innocent and that there is nothing about yourself that could possibly cause any alarm, or nothing which could ever implicate you in any sort of crime, the fact is that this "innocent" information about yourself could still be misconstrued by law enforcement and used in an attempt to implicate you in a crime.  To better understand what I mean, I suggest watching this very enlightening 49 minute video titled "Don't talk to the police":  In it, Law Professor James Duane explains why innocent people should never talk to the police, no matter how seemingly innocuous any knowledge they possess may be, directly followed by a presentation by George Bruch from the Virginia Beach police department who goes on to agree with Professor Duane.

Update: This 2014 article from Al Jazeera in the wake of the Snowden revelations points out: When investigators have mountains of data on a particular target, it’s easy to see only the data points that confirm their theories — especially in counterterrorism investigations when the stakes are so high — while ignoring or downplaying the rest. There doesn’t have to be any particular malice on the part of investigators or analysts, although prejudice no doubt comes into play, just circumstantial evidence and the dangerous belief in their intuition. Social scientists refer to this phenomenon as confirmation bias, and when people are confronted with data overload, it’s much easier to weave the data into a narrative that substantiates what they already believe.

If you're okay with that, then you won't mind this

Furthermore, the "nothing to hide" viewpoint is shortsighted: It does not take into account the slippery slope that is created by the legal precedents that make room for increasing infringements to our rights to privacy, right to travel, etc., nor does this viewpoint speak to how future CLOGs will choose to interpret these new "freedoms".

You know those fancy new backscatter X-ray units that they have been installing in airports around the world in order to increase "our security"?  Well, I've seen a lot of discussion about these devices and there are certainly people who object to having naked images of themselves being viewed and stored by private companies (i.e. airport security); then of course there are those who say: "Who cares if they see me naked? As long as it keeps weapons and bombs off the plane, I'm happy." While I am not ashamed of my body, that doesn't automatically make it okay for a stranger to see it.  Even if we really don't mind showing strangers our naked bodies, we should also be asking ourselves what our limits are when it comes to our security, BEFORE someone presents the next option.

The fact is, these same backscatter X-ray machines are only able to see beneath one's clothes, but if you have something **ahem** inserted into yourself, the object becomes invisible to these scanners. So, let's say another "terrorist plot" is planned or executed on or around another airport due to the "terrorist" being able to get past the body scanners with their "inserted" goods; would it then surprise you if airport security/the government were to suggest random cavity searches?  Now, if such exams were performed by registered physicians alone in a room with just the two of you, would that be okay too?  I mean, it's no more intrusive than your yearly pap or prostate exam, right?  And if those scanners can't detect materials stashed inside one's body and all of these "terrorists" keep hijacking and attempting to bomb commercial airplanes, we need to do something to stop it, right?  Are the same people who put down others as being "prudes" for not wanting fairly detailed naked images of themselves being taken of them at airports and stored in a database willing to "spread 'em" in the name of "security"?  I mean, there is nothing to be ashamed of, especially if it's just you and a physician in a room together, right?

And did you know that there are plans to use vans equipped with these same backscatter x-ray machines so that law enforcement agencies are able to look through walls of buildings and vehicles simply by driving by them? Sure, you might not know that they are x-raying your home, but the chances of it ever happening are slim, and it's no different than the amount of radiation you would experience during an airport scan....

Can you see how the same arguments can be used over and over again, as more and more ridiculous demands are placed upon us? Things that, only decades ago, would have been considered preposterous? Some have called this the boiled frog syndrome if people become acclimated to some policy or state of affairs over a sufficient period of time, they come to accept the policy or state of affairs as normal.  And the best motivator is fear, and boy, do the CLOGs and the MSM know how to use that one!

The problem about giving away freedoms in the name of security is that the same types of arguments can be used over and over again to get us to submit to more and more abuses of our rights cuz let's face it, the MSM tells us the world is an increasingly scary and dangerous place.  We really need to draw a clear outline and set very specific limits to what CLOGs can do to us in the name of security.

Your secret is safe with us
No data are 100% secure no one can guarantee that some information or data won't get leaked in error, or accessed by a hacker or **gasp!** a terrorist.  Just think of all the stories in the news about hacks into bank records, governmental and medical records being lost due to human error, etc...  I mean, even the Pentagon has been hacked on several occasions and surely they must have some of the world's top experts on data encryption working for them!  No matter what assurances a CLOG gives you about how your data will not be shared with others, the fact is they can only assure you that they will not knowingly or voluntarily share your data with anyone. That doesn't mean someone else won't take it from them.

"Ignorance of the law excuses no one"

Wow, there's another mantra that irks me; nonetheless, this is the opinion of those who create and enforce statute law, and in knowing this, those who repeat the "nothing to hide" mantra should also consider that something which is perfectly legal today, might become illegal tomorrow.  In other words, something that you don't feel the need to "hide" today may become something to "fear" tomorrow.  And what if you are completely unaware in the change?  Are you expected to be constantly and consistently aware of all of the ordinances and statute laws held over you?  And if the law changes and you don't know it, does that then become "your problem"?  Apparently so.

What's good for the goose...

If you will all excuse me as I drift into some ad-hominem, I think it should not go unnoticed that the very same CLOGs of the world who wish to use controversial data mining, and other intrusions on ones personal lives, in the name of "security" the very same CLOGs who love to throw the "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about" argument at anyone who complains have all SORTS of excuses for why they should be able to hide their own activities from the people: What did Ben Bernenke say when Sen. Bernie Sanders asked him  "will you tell the American people to whom you lent $2.2 trillion of their dollars?" Of course he said: "No." And whenever there's a press conference regarding the Afghan and Iraq missions at the White House and hard-hitting questions are asked about the death counts, human rights abuses, or anything else that the government doesn't want to answer, they always bring out the "I can't because it is a matter of national security" or that it would "put our troops in jeopardy" or "affect their morale".

And what do police officers and security guards tend to do when someone so much as points a video camera in their general direction? Just ask this person, or this person, or this person.  Many security officers would also have us believe that filming certain buildings is against the law, such as in this video and in this video at about 4:17.  And here is Dan getting harassed yet again at about 5:05 in this video, to the point where security tells him he can't even stand on the sidewalk and has to move on to the road!

People are even harassed by police for filming officers on duty from their own private property, such as this guy from the UK and this guy from the US who, as the video shows, was eventually arrested for doing just that.  It would seem that not even MSM news camera men are immune.  And here is another great video specifically about photographer's rights in the UK.  And this article from the Washington Post speaks to photographer's rights in the US and gives many more examples of people being harassed for taking photos on supposed "private property". 

Isn't it strange how policy enforcement officers will often ask (or demand) that a person not film them for "security reasons", yet the very reason they claim that they need to record our images, is for (you guessed it!) "our security"?!

This is for whose security?

To use CCTV as an example, with all of these "wonderful" cameras placed in public areas for "our security", and police dashboard cams installed in police vehicles for "our security", isn't it funny that when someone is mysteriously injured, or even dies while in police custody, the cameras happen to "malfunction" or to be turned off? There are even situations were several cameras in the same location coincidentally fail to work at the exact same moment as in this story about a man who died while in Scotland Yard custody, whereby several cameras in the same train-station where the death occurred either had blank recordings or happened to have had their disks removed the day before the incident in question.

I also wonder why the police were so keen on putting CCTV all over downtown Toronto during the G20 summit this year; presumably it was to track and identify individuals possibly causing harm to people and property, and yet when such activities actually occurred and those images were being streamed to whatever agency was monitoring those cameras, somehow the police still failed to call anyone to the scene of the vandalism, instead letting people smash store windows and set fire to police cars without any officers in sight.  Instead, they proceeded in the following days to just arrest anyone and everyone, even people simply passing through on their way home from work.

Where is that camera footage and just how did it keep the public safer and more secure that weekend?  And how much money did those seemingly useless "security" cameras cost us in the end?

Then there are the questions as to whether surveillance methods pushed on us as a "necessary evil" so that we can "catch the bad guys" thereby "reducing crime" and "increasing our overall security" really reduce crime at all.  CCTV perhaps being the most glaring example of this:
CCTV is but one type of surveillance that CLOGs are using around the world. What is perhaps even more troublesome are the powers that CLOGs are increasingly giving themselves to conduct various types of surveillance without oversight, or even so much as a warrant, such as the internet wiretapping bill being pushed by the Obama administration and powers that the FBI are already using to eavesdrop on people by using the mic in the person-of-interest's own cell-phone.  And if you don't think that this could be done on your laptop, think again:  Google has developed software to listen in on a laptop user's mic so that Google can identify a piece of music or TV show playing the background and offer up "relevant content, whether that's adverts or search results, or a chat room on the subject"; I would almost bet that the same software could be tweaked by CLOGs to listen for key words.  And here's a story about a high school in Philadelphia who used laptops provided to students to surreptitiously take snap-shots of them in order to spy on them, even as they slept at home.

So, I hope I may have convinced some people who would have otherwise agreed with the "nothing to hide" mantra to reconsider their position on the matter.   As usual, I welcome any and all commentary.

If you are interested in reading-up or watching more videos on the subjects of privacy and surveillance you might consider reading the essay I mentioned earlier titled 'I've Got Nothing to Hide' and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy, available as a free pdf download here.  There is also this short but well edited video titled "Big Brother Truth Now! The police state is no longer a conspiracy".  And if you want to watch longer films on the subject here is a whole page of related video links from Esoteric Tube a website that provides links to many free, on-line documentaries on various alternative and esoteric topics.


  1. well said! Who let these control freaks have power and money in the first place?? An what do we do about it? Certainly can't solve it by voting. Can't solve it with boycotts. What do we do??

  2. You have the unconditional RIGHT to opt-out.
    Click on my name above or go to:
    for important radiological safety and privacy information and actual images from this technology, not the lame images that TSA is propagating.

  3. @ Stryder Wolfe: Thanks man! As for what we can do, that is a very good question. I think you're right about the uselessness of voting. Boycotts though aren't a bad idea, after all CLOGs base their actions on the bottom line, but they only work if large portions of the population participate. And I think people really need to educate themselves on their rights, since (as many of those video links in my post demonstrate) security and police officers will sometimes tell you not to do something even though there is no such law preventing one from doing it. The question I have about it is are these officers just badly trained? Are they purposefully being misinformed by their superiors? Or is it just a question of ego -- i.e. do they just make shit up cuz they know the majority will not dare question them? Regardless of the reason, if we just go along without question the situation is only bound to get worse.

    @ Wimpie: You're absolutely right about opting out. I know I would never step into one of those things. Luckily I rarely have to fly and if I do it is rarely out of the country and so far I haven't seen these used for domestic flights within Canada. Unfortunately opting for the pat down can take longer and airport security is probably going to make that option as unpleasant as possible, which will deter most from taking that option. And thanks for the link, BTW.

  4. I’ve been following and enjoying your blog for a while now and would like to invite you to visit and perhaps follow me back. Sorry I took so long for the invitation

  5. @covnitkepr1 I'm glad to hear that someone out in cyberspace enjoys my musings. I have visited your site before but I neglected to follow you back. I will admit that I don't identify as Christian, but I am very interested in spirituality. Consider yourself followed back. 8-)

  6. I really enjoyed reading the posts on your blog. I would like to invite you to come on over to my blog and check it out. God bless, Lloyd

  7. Glad to have you aboard, and happy to follow you.