Contra "Nothing to Hide"

Monday, May 23, 2011

At the Chronicle Review is an article that does a pretty good job of demolishing the asinine, "I've got nothing to hide," argument, which most commonly arises in discussions of whether we should expand government surveillance powers in the name of "security." The final paragraph, below, is a good summary, but I recommend reading the whole article.

When the nothing-to-hide argument is unpacked, and its underlying assumptions examined and challenged, we can see how it shifts the debate to its terms, then draws power from its unfair advantage. The nothing-to-hide argument speaks to some problems but not to others. It represents a singular and narrow way of conceiving of privacy, and it wins by excluding consideration of the other problems often raised with government security measures. When engaged directly, the nothing-to-hide argument can ensnare, for it forces the debate to focus on its narrow understanding of privacy. But when confronted with the plurality of privacy problems implicated by government data collection and use beyond surveillance and disclosure, the nothing-to-hide argument, in the end, has nothing to say.
Of particular note is how the article starts off by showing how easily refuted the argument is when stated in black-and-white terms (e.g., "... 'So do you have curtains?' or 'Can I see your credit-card bills for the last year?'"), and yet how easily otherwise conscientious people can still find themselves unable to answer its more subtle forms. I do disagree with Daniel Solove's contention that privacy is "too complex" an issue to essentialize, but I don't think this misconception knocks him off track, at least as far as the scope of his article goes.

I find it interesting that the argument is, as stated, an "argument from intimidation," but that the damage doesn't end simply when someone correctly points out that a desire for privacy is not equivalent to nefarious intent. This is because the faulty premise of the explicit argument itself relies on assumptions that won't necessarily be uncovered or contested by someone who does succeed in seeing through the explicit "argument" for what it is. As Solove shows, it sometimes isn't enough to shrug off such an argument as ridiculous: It can be helpful to ask why someone sees the argument as tenable (or thinks you will), and examine those premises as well.

-- CAV


Mike N said...

Great post. A morally just society, a civilized one, is a largely private one where people are free to live a private and/or public life of their own choosing.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you, Mike. As a very private person myself, I always notice it when people attempt to bully others into giving up one of the hallmarks of civilized life.