Why Snooping is Scary if You’ve Got Nothing to Hide

Don't fall for the government line that if you've done nothing wrong then you've nothing to hide. We all deserve our privacy.

Nothing to Hide Argument
Claire Broadley
By Claire Broadley

After the London Bridge terrorist attack in June 2016, UK Prime Minister Theresa May called for the internet to be regulated. That would mean opening up our communications for scrutiny by anyone authorized to take a peek, be it the police, the security services, or your boss.

Tellingly, the providers of the services that governments want to target are over the whole privacy thing too. Mark Zuckerberg calls it a social norm that is past its use-by date.

Nothing to hide? Nothing to fear. Or so people say. But it’s the people who are rarely targeted for surveillance that tend to exhibit a false sense of security. People living in oppressive regimes would not dare be so complacent, having seen friends and neighbors suffer for free speech.

If you have nothing to hide, would you pull down your pants, and hand your unlocked phone to a stranger? No. Because you have a right not to. So why are we so relaxed about those rights being taken away online?

Pro Tip: You’re Not Innocent

On average, Americans commit 3 felonies a day, whether they know it or not.

You might accidentally litter, take something from a store, or trespass on private land. It doesn’t matter. In the eyes of the law, you could be arrested.

On average, Americans commit 3 felonies a day, whether they know it or not.

This rather conflicts with the claim that most people have nothing to fear, and nothing to hide.

When we talk about mass surveillance, most of the conversation skews towards terrorism, and regulation of services terrorists use to chat. Anyone that is pro-privacy is somehow allowing terrorism to take place, or so the argument goes.

But statistics prove that all of us are criminals. And data collection does not distinguish intentional crimes from accidental ones. If you can be caught on CCTV jaywalking, you can be just as easily be caught looking at something illegal on the internet without realising you did it.

Living Without Privacy

Mass surveillance is on the rise in many western democracies, and we have plenty of examples to prove it.

The UK’s Investigatory Powers Act is a privacy-infringing law that is certain to be a blueprint for future laws elsewhere. President Trump signed off the rollback of laws that prevented ISPs from collecting customer data. And Edward Snowden has spoken out against mass surveillance laws in Australia and, soon, Japan.

These countries have a relatively stable approach to free speech and democracy historically, even if current political events are unstable. But according to Freedom House, 27% of internet users live in countries where people are arrested for ‘liking’ things on Facebook. A staggering 67% would be in trouble for criticising their own government, rulers, or military. To assume that the west represents the norm is naive in the extreme.

Many of the countries that are judged “not free” have authoritative regimes in place. And in every western democracy, the population is theoretically only one election away from the same thing.

In North Korea, the situation is so extreme that citizens have no access to uncensored communication in any form. Use of the internet would result in 2 years’ hard labor for the offender and, possibly, their family.

The Risk of Trusting Authority

If you are fortunate enough to have relatively free internet access, and you are happy with mass surveillance taking place, you presumably also trust the people that safeguard access to your data.

Hacks, leaks, and doxxing prove that blindly trusting authority is unwise.

Consider the simple case of a man wrongly identified on CCTV. Christopher Seddon spent over $10,000 defending himself, and will receive — at best — 30% of his costs.

In January 2017, a marketing firm working for the Republican Party accidentally leaked 62% of Americans’ personal data, including their names, addresses, and political preferences.

Experience proves that the authorities cannot be trusted to keep your data safe.

All of the metadata that’s being collected about you could easily be used for blackmail, leaked online, or used to identify you to the authorities. You may not have broken any laws at all. That doesn’t mean you’d give consent for your medical records to be posted on a billboard.

Many countries are routinely collecting browsing metadata from computers already. That metadata could reveal more about your life than you think. Even if you have nothing to hide, as the saying goes, you’d probably rather not be targeted for your hobbies, political interests, or sexual preferences.

We All Have Something to Hide

When politicians like Theresa May call for an end to encryption, they are calling for an end to privacy. And hopefully we’ve demonstrated the various ways that privacy is a right we should all fight for.

You might not be a terrorist. You might be innocent of serious crimes, even if you’ve committed the odd felony in the past week.

That doesn’t mean you should leave your doors unlocked at night, just in case the police want to enter your home and check on you.

Even in countries where surveillance is rampant, VPNs help people to guard their right to privacy and are a valuable tool in facilitating legitimate protests and whistleblowing. Those of us that are fortunate to have that right should take great care not to lose it.