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Nothing to Hide? Why Privacy Matters … Even for the Innocent


Art by Tuyet-Van Huynh

By Zachary Slayback

The 2013 revelations of Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers threw the issue of 21st century surveillance and privacy into the limelight of public discourse.

Even with widespread distrust in our governments to follow the constitutional procedures binding them when collecting private data and information, a familiar slogan has come to the forefront. Usually combined with an apathetic support of widespread privacy violations by public and private entities alike, “I have nothing to hide” has become the mantra of the 21st century privacy apatheist. The Twitter handle @NothingToHide even documents this shirking of personal privacy.

Notwithstanding evidence of NSA employees and contractors spying on love interests, politicians and police harassing dissidents, and the collusion of the national surveillance apparatus with the national assassination apparatus abroad (i.e., extrajudicial drone-based assassinations), this declaration is usually motivated by a belief that government can be trusted to do what is right and not abuse the data of innocent people.

Even if government could be trusted with the data of those who have “nothing to hide,” we should still be concerned with keeping some information private from prying eyes for two reasons.

Privacy defines our relationships. Privacy is at the core of how we treat other people and what relationships we choose to enter and exit. Both the intimacy of a relationship and the authenticity of a relationship are defined by the amount and manner in which information is divulged.. The relationships we create with those nearest and dearest to ourselves are defined by voluntarily sharing a large breadth and depth of information. In contrast, our most detached relationships contain the least amount or least detailed information possible. A spouse is hurt upon discovering that her wife failed to tell her about her promotion, or an acquaintance is flattered upon being declared a confidant. The idea of divulging different information to different people controlling our relationships is not foreign to our intuitions.

Consider a case of your neighbor knowing the details of your closest moments with your dying parents, or the feelings of joy and elation shared with your spouse on your honeymoon, or the anger and frustration directed towards an incompetent coworker. Even if your neighbor has no intention of sharing this information with any other parties, this imbues these moments with a feeling of coldness and artificiality. In short, this works towards removing the humanity from these relationships.

In the popular Netflix series House of Cards, Vice President Francis Underwood and his wife Claire manipulate others — and oftentimes each other — to claw their way to the top. Both engage in extramarital affairs — but the other is always fully aware of those affairs. Through this, the Underwoods’ marriage — though rife with sociopathy — seems healthier than even the longest of relationships. The level of voluntary openness in their relationship creates a strong bond of trust, intimacy, and authenticity that would be absent if they broadcasted the same information to everybody.

Privacy defines us. Perhaps more important than our relationships, our ability to control what information we voluntarily release to the world helps us define ourselves. Deeper than an issue of mere self-censorship, this self-governance allows us to keep the spheres we deem “me” away from the spheres we deem “others.” Privacy creates a sphere of thoughts to which one can point and say, “this is uniquely mine,” even if that thought is shared privately by others. This deep level of self-governance is at the core of a robust market society that simultaneously encourages community.

Just as the introvert may take the weekend off to read books and mentally recharge, the individual requires a space to withdraw and to separate from the community. It is here that the individual cognizes a rational scheme of ends and formulates a life-plan.

Were this sphere on public display, or even under the gaze of gatekeepers, it would be impossible to formulate a coherent life-plan or scheme of ends. The always-shifting variables of, “what will others think?” and “what do others want?” coming from each individual in the community pulls the potential plans into incoherent messes, frustrating both the individual’s own self-conception and any possibility of a coherent community conception.

“Nothing to hide” may seem like a phrase of patriotic martyrdom, but it actively works against the core values of a free society. A society that wishes to flourish with a pluralistic set of relationships and plans must allow for what Justice Louis Brandeis called, “the right to be left alone.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of PPR.

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