A functioning police state needs no police.
- William S. Burroughs
Scene: you are at a dinner party and someone starts talking about how Facebook is spying on them: "I was talking about my uncomfortable bed and 10 minutes later Facebook started showing me ads of mattresses!".
The conversation quickly turns into a discussion about privacy which then quickly turns into a philosophical debate about mass-surveillance.
At this point, it is almost inevitable that somebody (maybe you?) will use The Argument: "well maybe the government or private corporations are spying on us, but you don't need to worry if you got nothing to hide" (I always imagine this said in an annoying East-coast American accent).
The nothing-to-hide argument asserts that, when it comes to mass-surveillance, only people who do bad things need to worry, whereas nothing changes for good, law-abiding citizens.
This argument has been used so many times, in so many different places, by so many powerful people that it has become almost self-evident. But the most diabolical aspect of it is actually that the entire conversation is shifted (albeit in a very inconspicuous way) from the problem to the person.
Now it's no more about the government or the NSA or mass-surveillance. It's about you: why would you argue against that? Oh yes, unless you do have something to hide.
This is why when this argument is used, most people back off. Nobody wants to be seen as a person with something to hide.
But as smart as it looks, this argument completely misses the point.
Privacy is like democracy: on an individual level, a single vote matters very little and doesn't change anything. However, it is in the aggregate that millions of votes make the difference between democracy or dictatorship.
Likewise, except for very specific cases, the privacy of a single individual matters very little. But in the aggregate, it's the difference between a police state and a free one.
You might not care about your personal privacy rights but they exist because they are important on a society level.
Privacy is a social good.
It's a bit like vaccination: maybe you don't need it nor want it but it protects society as a whole.
As Edward Snowden famously said:
"If you think privacy is unimportant for you because you have nothing to hide, you might as well say free speech is unimportant for you because you have nothing useful to say."
You might say: "I don't care about society. I only care about myself and I don't have anything to hide." However, that argument is also fallacious. Just because you have nothing to hide now, it doesn't mean you will NEVER have anything to hide.
Even if you are a law-abiding, average Joe and you think you'll always agree with your government, there are certain things you can't control like the definition itself of "morality" or "rightness" or even "lawful".
What happens if your definition of morality changes and clashes with your government's? Aren't you allowed to protect your secrets from Big Brother?
It's an interesting fact that the people who use the nothing-to-hide argument are often white, Western and straight. Well guess what: not everyone wants a lifestyle that fits what society thinks is the "right way".
Think about homosexuals who were treated as criminals in most of the Western world until very recently. If you were a gay man in England in 1965 you could go to prison. Just two years later you could walk free. In Iran, the opposite happened. Homosexuality was tolerated under the Pahlavi regime and then made illegal and "immoral" after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Things change very quickly. The definition of what is "moral" changes even quicker.
But mass-surveillance is not so much about protection as it is about power and influence.
Every time an organisation (whether it is a government or a private company) gets access to data about you, they accumulate power. The more people are surveilled, the more power the organization has over these people and, as we all know very well, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The accumulation of power it's something you should be worried about regardless of your stand on privacy matters. If there is one thing History has taught us over and over again is that people or organisations with lots of power will use it.
By the way, the "nothing-to-hide" argument is, incidentally, very popular in police states. Just read about what Stasi did in East Germany.
Some people object that even if all these counter-arguments are fine and sound, this is our current situation and there is very little we can do. Private corporations are motivated by profit maximisation and the military has largely free rains over matters of national security. Just look at all the things the NSA has done without the consent of the government.
This is, in short, the status quo of our reality.
I find this argument fascinating because it's not just historically wrong (virtually every civil rights movement has started against the status quo of the time) but also because it's morally corrupt. Just because something becomes more and more common doesn't make it any less wrong. It's like saying that in a country with a high raping rate, rape should not be considered a serious offence.
Don't worry, I haven't forgotten the elephant in the room.
Advocates of the "nothing-to-hide" argument say "Yes, maybe some personal rights are not respected, but it's all for the greater good: the fight against terrorism".
Indeed, most people will accept the argument that mass surveillance is invasive of personal privacy and has some negative consequences but, in the grand scheme of things, the pros outweigh the cons.
Well, let me break the bad news for you: mass surveillance is practically useless against terrorism. Yes, you read that right: useless.
Several studies have shown that mass surveillance has never been useful to identify a terrorist suspect or prevent a terrorist attack. One of these investigations was carried out by the US Congress, which had access to classified documents and was able to interview people working for the NSA.
In her book "American spies", Jennifer Stisa Granick compellingly argues that mass surveillance is not just intrusive, it's also ineffective.
In another paper, Dr Reinhard Kreissl shows how mass surveillance, at least in its current form, just doesn't work.
But why is mass surveillance such a useless tool for catching terrorists? The answer, ironically enough, has much to do with how intrusive it has become.
Too much data
We might naïvely think that the more data we have, the higher our chances of catching the bad guys. But in reality, more data mean more time to process it, more false positives, more errors, etc.
Security services drown in information, even after they have filtered it using their search criteria. There is so much information that they are unable to tell what is important and what is not, who is a genuine suspect and who is innocent. Which leads to the second problem...
Mass surveillance only works when you know exactly what you're looking for. The real problem is that each terrorist attack is different. Terrorists only flew aeroplanes into the Twin Towers once. They only tried to smuggle explosives in a bottle once. Every time we added security measures to prevent the next "similar" attack but every attack is different, which is what makes them so hard to detect.
Even if we had all the data in the word, we'd still need to calibrate our algorithms to find the "next" attack which, by definition, we don't know what's going to be.
As Dr Reinhard Kreissl explains:
Single events cannot be predicted from mass data. And furthermore identifying potential criminals or terrorists on the basis of theoretical assumptions, what makes an individual a dangerous individual, are deemed to fail. Using machine-based algorithmic reasoning for mass data, to create and search so-called data-doubles of individuals and/or groups not only entails the risk of creating huge numbers of false positives but also violates fundamental rights of citizens.
What does this all mean? Are we hopeless against terrorism?
I can't answer these questions and it's definitely not the goal of this post, but it's clear that we are fighting this battle with the wrong instruments, which are producing objectively poor results.
The systematic violation of privacy in the name of terrorism prevention is morally broken, historically backwards and practically ineffective.
More importantly, it's time we understand that preventing terrorism has nothing to do with mass surveillance. Mass surveillance is about transferring power from citizens to governments, the military and private corporations. You don't need to be anarchic to understand this (I'm not one).
Ironically the "nothing-to-hide" argument is used primarily by the least transparent organisations in the world, like military agencies and governments.
You're asked to be completely transparent because... you got nothing to hide, do you? But if you are indeed "clean", then why are you under surveillance in the first place?
Ultimately, the best response to “I’ve got nothing to hide” will always be: “If I have done nothing wrong, why is my privacy being violated?”