Nothing to Hide?

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“I don’t care about surveillance cameras. I don’t have anything to hide.”

This is the most common refrain I hear when talking to people about government surveillance. I understand the sentiment, but I have since come to believe it’s actually self-deception. It’s a trite saying that sounds reasonable, but nobody really means it.

Ask yourself this question: would you send me your email password?

Why not … if you don’t have anything to hide?

Journalist Glenn Greenwald delivered a TED Talk addressing the prevalent idea that only “bad people” who “have something to hide” need to worry about constant government spying.

Greenwald obliterates that kind of fallacious thinking, first pointing out that while many people say they don’t care about surveillance, their actions tell a different story. He says he often challenges people parroting the “I have nothing to hide” mantra to give him the passwords to all of their email accounts (All of them, not just the nice, clean work email.) so he can poke around and publish anything he finds interesting. Greenwald said nobody has taken him up on the offer!

Greenwald goes on to point out that the “I have nothing to hide” mentality actually reveals a more sorry and troubling mindset.

The people who are actually saying that are engaged in a very extreme act of self deprecation. What they’re really saying is I have agreed to make myself such a harmless and unthreatening and uninteresting person that I actually don’t fear having the government know what it is I am doing.

Greenwald points out another disturbing fact about living in a surveillance-state: the chilling effect on the way we behave. And a society afraid to act becomes a society ripe for tyranny.

“When we’re in a state where we can be monitored, where we can be watched, our behavior changes dramatically. The range of behavioral options that we consider when we think we’re being watched severely reduce. When somebody knows that they might be watched, the behavior they engage in is vastly more conformist and compliant,” he said. “A society in which people can be monitored at all times is a society that breeds conformity, obedience and submission, which is why every tyrant, from the most overt to the most subtle craves that system.”

Apologists for the surveillance state often argue that it will really only impact “bad people.” Greenwald points out that the political class likely embraces a much broader definition of “bad people” than you do.

When you say “somebody who’s doing bad things,” you probably mean things like plotting a terrorist attack or engaging in violent criminality – a much narrower conception of what people who wield power mean when they say “doing bad things.” For them, doing bad things typically means doing something that poses meaningful challenges to the exercise of their own power.

Greenwald builds a compelling case against those who submit to ubiquitous surveillance, convincingly arguing that they greatly minimize the risks. He rightly paints constant government spying as a threat to our freedom.

When we allow a society to exist in which we’re subject to constant monitoring, we allow the essence of human freedom to be severely crippled.

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