'I've Got Nothing to Hide' and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy


I just came across this paper on SSRN, titled 'I've got Nothing to Hide' and other Misunderstandings of Privacy. It's a short essay from 2007-2008 that succinctly situates one part of the privacy discussion. More than anything else, I was drawn toward reading it because it directly addresses an argument I found myself making a lot in the last few months regarding the NSA, Prizm, and other government data collection efforts that made national news.

Some key take aways from the paper that made me change my mind about making the "I don't have anything to hide" argument are:

  • "Far too often, discussions of the NSA surveillance and data mining define the problem solely in terms of surveillance. To return to my discussion of metaphor, the problems are not just Orwellian, but Kafkaesque. The NSA programs are problematic even if no information people want to hide is uncovered. In The Trial, the problem is not inhibited behavior, but rather a suffocating powerlessness and vulnerability created by the court system’s use of personal data and its exclusion of the protagonist from having any knowledge or participation in the process."
  • "[The privacy issue] is not about whether the information gathered is something people want to hide, but rather about the power and the structure of government."
  • "One of the difficulties with the nothing to hide argument is that it looks for a visceral kind of injury as opposed to a structural one. "


My proclivities as a millennial, whose political world view was largely formed by September 11th, led me astray on this matter it seems. I found myself erring on the side of "well my personal discomfort, if any, will most likely be relegated to embarrassment at worst, and in exchange for increased national security, maybe it's a worthwhile trade." (or some bastardized version of that argument) But having someone lay the entire privacy question out, define privacy (a difficult endeavor in itself) and address the fact that saying "I have nothing to hide," almost entirely misses the point was beneficial.