Saturday, June 21, 2008

I have nothing to hide... mind your own goddamn business.

As an advocate of an open society, I feel strongly that anyone should be able to essentially come out of the closet about anything they care to make public, without fear of judgment or repercussion. This should, in fact, apply even to admissions of criminal behavior in a context which does not constitute a legal confession, unless there is a clear and imminent threat of harm to another in the admission. No one should have anything to hide.

However, I feel that it is critical to distinguish this position from the entirely spurious anti-privacy assertion that "if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide." For an astute and detailed refutation of this idea, see this paper; I particularly identify, however, with this excerpt: "[D]ata mining aims to be predictive of behavior, striving to prognosticate about our future actions. People who match certain profiles are deemed likely to engage in a similar pattern of behavior. It is quite difficult to refute actions that one has not yet done. Having nothing to hide will not always dispel predictions of future activity." Nothing grates against the sense of justice and the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" quite like the notion of future guilt. "[T]he problem with the 'nothing to hide' argument is that it focuses on just one or two particular kinds of privacy problems—the disclosure of personal information or surveillance—and not others."

For other readers, a different analogy might strike home: "In many instances, privacy is threatened not by singular egregious acts, but by a slow series of relatively minor acts which gradually begin to add up. In this way, privacy problems resemble certain environmental harms which occur over time through a series of small acts by different actors. [...] The law frequently struggles with recognizing harms that do not result in embarrassment, humiliation, or physical or psychological injury. [...] The problems caused by breaches of confidentiality do not merely consist of individual emotional distress; they involve a violation of trust within a relationship. There is a strong social value in ensuring that promises are kept and that trust is maintained in relationships between businesses and their customers."

Privacy is about the right to control how much or how little information about yourself becomes public. Too much privacy becomes de facto censorship; too little creates a paranoid police state. When I reveal personal information about myself, I am attempting to help create an environment in which anyone can be true to who they are in public without fear of censure, not to imply that we should have no secrets.

"[W]hen 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."

Seriously, I recommend this essay.

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