Nothing to fear because I have nothing to hide

“Only if you’re doing something wrong should you worry, and then you don’t deserve to keep it private.”

Daniel Solove tackled this argument in 2011. As he points out, people making this argument misconstrue many aspects about what constitutes (personal) security and privacy.

“This issue isn’t about what information people want to hide but about the power and the structure of government.”

Thus, how much a government knows and monitors is indicative of that country’s governance. Our inability to know what they’re collecting, how they’re viewing this data and what they’re deducing from it should be our main concern. It is Kafkaesque as well as Orwellian, though it is because of the former that we should actually be concerned.

Legal and policy solutions [to these concerns] focus too much on the problems under the Orwellian metaphor—those of surveillance—and aren’t adequately addressing the Kafkaesque problems—those of information processing.

Innocent behaviour can be named suspicious, worthy of investigation; your life and personal freedom could be undermined due to powerful organisations deciding what your actions and “real” motivations are. On the justification of “protecting the country”, preemptive and harsh actions could be taken against you.

Also, it’s important to remember how a citizen’s privacy is lost.

“Privacy is rarely lost in one fell swoop. It is usually eroded over time, little bits dissolving almost imperceptibly until we finally begin to notice how much is gone”

Yes, it is a slippery slope argument, but – remember – slippery slopes are only fallacious when no causal connection is reasonably shown (with evidence). Solove portrays it using the environmental analogy.

Privacy is often threatened not by a single egregious act but by the slow accretion of a series of relatively minor acts. In this respect, privacy problems resemble certain environmental harms, which occur over time through a series of small acts by different actors. Although society is more likely to respond to a major oil spill, gradual pollution by a multitude of actors often creates worse problems.

The entire article makes for an excellent read.

I hope I encounter better arguments in favour of the NSA’s actions, but so far, I’ve not seen any. Do let me know if you come across good counters or better versions of “done no wrong, therefore I have no fear” argument.


As I hit publish, I recall that the incredible David Simon wrote one. The piece and – the gods shoot me now with the unicorn guns – the comments are quite valuable. Also see the follow up (where he adorably snarks at his son).



  1. stever says

    Governments grow. It’s what they do. However good the intentions of its founders, no matter what its laws say, the never-spoken Priority Zero of every government is the protection and extension of its own power. Eventually, official arrogance and the proliferation of regulations become intolerable. The traditional solution to the problem of an overgrown government is to dissolve it and found a new one. This is the last resort, because the only historically reliable solvent for this application is blood, and the bigger and older the government, the more blood it takes. The founders of the United States thought that they saw a way out of this trap, a legislature that had to face the electorate at fixed intervals and system of incremental adjustments to the Constitution. It worked some of the time, but more often the effect was to accelerate the accumulation of power in Washington. One of the grievances, mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, against King George was:

    “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”

    Our present government makes old George look like an amateur. The Federal government is by far the largest employer in the country. A paper copy of the current Code of Federal Regulations would probably fill a railcar, and a multitude of unelected, largely unknown Officers churn out new regulations daily. Are you a stage magician, and want to pull a rabbit out of your hat? The Department of Agriculture will send an inspector to make sure that your Federal rabbit license is in order. No, that’s not a joke. The regulation also applies to pet shops, but if you raise rabbits for slaughter or snake food, rest easy. The license requirement doesn’t apply to you.

    This can’t go on forever. Eventually, the government will be sucking up so much of the gross national product that the whole society will collapse like an overloaded bridge. As is the case with a column buckling under overload, it will happen very suddenly, and I hope I’m safe under six feet of earth before then. The only encouraging news is the fate of the Soviet Union. That shows that it is possible for a nuclear-armed government to collapse without a holocaust, but I’m still not optimistic.

    • Nepenthe says

      While I’m not sure what this comment has to do with the OP, it does bring up my usual response to this argument that those with nothing to hide should not fear surveillance.

      When the Code of Federal Regulations can fill a railcar, everyone has something to hide. Those naively proclaiming that they’ve done nothing illegal are almost certainly behind on at least one rabbit license.

  2. says

    I agree with Nepenthe. Right now, the NSA is only collecting meta-data (or so they claim), but things won’t necessarily stay that way, especially if there’s no noticeable blowback. Once they start collecting actual conversations, they can save something juicy on any of us for a rainy day when they’ll want to discredit us.

  3. says

    @Kathy even the metadata is something to use against us. I have had the same number for 3 or 4 year and still get calls for a previous owner. I might be getting monthly calls from an terrorist cell and have no idea. Even if that group never does anything, my ‘connection’ could be used against me indefinitely with no defense. What would pop up in a background check for a job? How would I even know?