Despite numerous articles and at least one full-length book debunking the premises and implications of this particular claim, “I have nothing to hide” is still a common reply offered by many Americans when asked whether they care about privacy.
What does that really mean?
An article by Conor Friedersdorf, published in The Atlantic in 2014, offered one assessment. It was titled “This Man Has Nothing to Hide—Not Even His Email Password.” The piece details Friedersdorf’s interaction with a man named Noah Dyer, who had responded to the writer’s standard challenge—"Would you prove [that you have nothing to hide] by giving me access to your email accounts, … along with your credit card statements and bank records?"—by actually providing all of that information. Friedersdorf then considers the ethical implications of Dyer’s philosophy of privacy-lessness (while navigating the ethics of his own decisions about which of Dyer’s information to look at and which to publish in his article).
After acknowledging a newfound though limited respect for Dyer’s commitment to drastic self-revelation, Friedersdorf ultimately reaches a different conclusion:
… I had to admit that, however foolishly, [Dyer] could legitimately claim he has nothing to hide. What had never occurred to me, until I sat in front of his open email account, is how objectionable I find that attitude. Every one of us is entrusted with information that our family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances would rather that we kept private, and while there is no absolute obligation for us to comply with their wishes—there are, indeed, times when we have a moral obligation to speak out in order to defend other goods—assigning the privacy of others a value of zero is callous.
It might be more than “callous,” though. It is an abdication of our responsibility to protect others, whose calculations about disclosure and risk might be very different from our own. Saying “I have nothing to hide” is tantamount to saying “I have nothing and no one to protect.” It is either an acknowledgment of a very lonely existence or a devastating failure of empathy and imagination.
As Friedersdorf describes him, Dyer is not a hermit; he has interactions with many people, at least some of whom (including his children) he appears to care about. And, in his case, his abdication is not complete; it is, rather, a shifting of responsibility. While he did disclose much of his personal information (which of course included the personal details of many others who had not been consulted, and whose “value system,” unlike his own, may not include radical transparency), Dyer wrote to Friedersdorf, the reporter, “[a]dditionally, while you may paint whatever picture of me you are inclined to based on the data and our conversations, I would ask you to exercise restraint in embarrassing others whose lives have crossed my path…”
In other words, “I have nothing to hide; please hide it for me.”
“I have nothing to hide” misses the fact that no person is an island, and much of every person’s data is tangled, interwoven, and created in conjunction with, other people’s.
The theme of the selfishness or lack of perspective embedded in the “nothing to hide” response is echoed in a recent commentary by lawyer and privacy activist Malavika Jayaram. In an article about India’s Aadhar ID system, Jayaram quotes Edward Snowden, who in a Reddit AMA session once said that “[a]rguing 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.” Jayaram builds on that, writing that the “nothing to hide” argument “locates privacy at an individual (some would say selfish) level and ignores the collective, societal benefits that it engenders and protects, such as the freedom of speech and association.”
She rightly points out, as well, that the “’nothing to hide’ rhetoric … equates a legitimate desire for space and dignity to something sinister and suspect” and “puts the burden on those under surveillance … , rather than on the system to justify why it is needed and to implement the checks and balances required to make it proportional, fair, just and humane.”
But there might be something else going on, at the same time, in the rhetorical shift from “privacy” to “something to hide”—a kind of deflection, of finger-pointing elsewhere: There, those are the people who have “something to hide”—not me! Nothing to see here, folks who might be watching. I accept your language, your framing of the issue, and your conclusions about the balancing of values or rights involved. Look elsewhere for troublemakers.
Viewed this way, the “nothing to hide” response is neither naïve nor simplistically selfish; it is an effort—perhaps unconscious—at camouflage. The opposite of radical transparency.
The same impetus might present itself in a different, also frequent response to questions about privacy and surveillance: “I’m not that interesting. Nobody would want to look at my information. People could look at information about me and it would all be banal.” But even if we’re not “interesting,” whatever that means, we all do have information, about ourselves and others, that we need to protect. And our society offers us rights that we need to protect, too--for our sake and others'.
(A version of this appeared as “Nothing to Hide? Nothing to Protect?”—a post in the blog “Internet Ethics: Views from Silicon Valley.”)
In disclosing all his personal information to a reporter, as described above, is Dyer being fair? To whom?
Have you heard people making the “nothing to hide” argument? If so, in what context(s)? What was your reaction at the time?
What assumptions underlie the claim, made by some, that they’re not worried about surveillance because they’re “not that interesting,” or not worth the effort? In other words, what does that suggest about people who are or should be concerned?
Is privacy a personal right, or a condition required by the common good? Before answering this, please review “A Framework for Ethical Decision Making.”
Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.