Why should I care about privacy, when I have nothing to hide?

Published by Reset The Net on 30 April 2014

We get this a lot. There are a million answers (our favorite short one is “Nothing to hide? Really?”) but here’s something thoughtful and comprehensive to share with a friend the next time it comes up. The short version? None of the freedom and progress we’ve won over the past century would have been possible without the freedom to change things (starting with our own lives first) that privacy gives us.

Imagine a world where you were constantly being judged by everyone around you, suffering immediately, or years down the road, for anything you did or said that was unusual, unpopular, or against the rules. In that kind of world, social and economic progress grinds to a halt, because everyone’s afraid to rock the boat!

Social progress

Gay rights. Interracial marriage. Medical marijuana. None of these would exist now if people were unable to break the rules in the privacy of their own home, building momentum and legitimacy until they could show the world what change looked like, that it wasn’t so scary, and that it could make the world a better place.

We owe massive amounts of social and economic progress to privacy. Think about it. Don’t take it for granted.

Liberty & even beer

Think about the prohibition of alcohol that took hold in the 1920s. Prohibition crumbled because people defied it, raising the social cost of enforcement. If prohibition had been 100% enforceable due to mass surveillance, it would have been much harder to get rid of.

You probably wouldn’t even be able to drink alcohol in the US, if people couldn’t privately defy prohibition. Remember that, the next time you crack open a cold beer on a hot day.

A ticking time bomb

The NSA’s current capability extends beyond privacy invasion. Right now, the NSA’s access give it the power to secretly undermine the work of journalists and elected leaders around the globe, intimidating sources and tipping elections. The NSA abuses this secrecy to undermine the systems (like Congressional oversight) meant to keep it in check. It’s hard to imagine something someone with the power Edward Snowden had couldn’t do in total secrecy. This capability to subvert democratic systems is a timebomb, waiting to go off.

And it will, if we let it continue to exist.

The worst part? When the NSA does subvert our democratic institutions, we might not even know it happened until it’s already too late.

So the next time you hear somebody say “I’ve got nothing to hide,” send them this.