If you’re not doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?

I’m hosting a podcast conversation in a few weeks with a small panel on the topic of privacy. Our goal is to interrogate a common refrain; a statement that is often repeated and reinforced across society: “I have nothing to hide. I am not doing anything wrong. Why should I be so concerned about privacy?”

We want to deconstruct the “But-I’m-not-doing-anything-wrong” line of reasoning from the ground up. What does this argument miss? Where does it fall apart? What does it unconsciously assume?

Ahead of our chat, I’m crowdsourcing more perspectives. I’m super curious about this: when you hear a friend or relative say something along the lines of, “If someone is not doing anything wrong, what do they have to hide?” how do you respond? 

I will put together a synthesis and compilation of input. Here are a few initial thoughts to get the ball rolling:

  • ‘I’m not doing anything wrong’ assumes a statistic definition of what is wrong, or at least what is punishable. What is ‘right’ under one regime can get you arrested and tortured under another. (P.S. As an individual, you have no control over potential regime changes down the road.) Privacy is, to some extent, future-proofing.

  • Human trust and intimacy depends on privacy: we define the depth of our relationships in large part by what we share with whom, and what they, in turn, entrust to us. The proposition that “Where there are no secrets, there are no lies,” entails that where there are no secrets, there are also no relationships.

  • As ‘The Girl’ (played by Amanda Seyfried) in Anon says: “It’s not that I have something to hide. I have nothing I want you to see.”

  • Are your health records, Facebook browsing history, banking and credit statements, Amazon shopping cart, and list of all past Google searches equally important pieces of data to you? What if one variable, say, your health records, could be predicted by another, like your Google search history?  

  • Over on Micro.blog, Robert shared a thought experiment highlighting the distinction between privacy and secrecy: why do you bother to close the bathroom door? “We all know what you’re doing in there — why not just leave the door open? Why so secretive? What are you hiding?” The choice to do your biological business behind a locked door is precisely that, a choice: “Privacy is about retaining control over the choice of when, whether, and to whom, you release information about yourself.” Privacy on the toilet has nothing to do with toileting ‘rightly’ or ‘wrongly’ — it is about exercising your right to disclose (or not disclose) something about yourself, on your terms.

  • Who really ‘wins’ — whose power is reinforced? — if everyone is convinced — or tricked to believe — that the complete transparency of everything is the requirement for security for everyone? The notion that ‘secrecy = guilt’ is an interesting, widely adopted cultural motif… whose interests could it possibly serve?

Your turn! How do you respond to the person who says, “I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I care about privacy?”

11 Replies to “If you’re not doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?”

  1. @jamesshelley the arguments I have attempted to use to sway people have rarely ever worked. The problem with the “What if …?” hypothetical situations is that they are hypothetical until they aren’t, and then it’s too late. All I can do is try to suggest alternatives when the opportunity arises.

  2. When you mentioned “secrecy = guilt” it instantly remided me of Dave Eggers’ “The Circle” and it’s tenets:

    SECRETS ARE LIES
    SHARING IS CARING
    PRIVACY IS THEFT

    The very notion that keeping something from somene else is, in effect, stealing it from them, denying them the opportunity to experience it. The similarity to 1984’s “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength” is obviously intentional but resonates more with a 21st century, social media obsessed audience.

    The idea of no secrets/no lies is interesting, even appealing – how can anyone do anything bad when everyone knows everything, but it turns us into Orwellian drones whose complaince is all. That robs us of freedom of expression, of individuality, of creativeness.

    Being in control of our own information and who we divulge it to is what makes us who we are. The day we removed that would be a sorry day for humanity.

  3. @matigo I should mention that I enter this discussion with an abysmal batting average as well when it comes to changing other people’s minds on the issue. And I agree: hypothetical arguments don’t go far until they are no longer hypothetical, and thus redundant.

  4. Online privacy is offline privacy. Not having one is not having any. More and more people say we should just accept there is no online privacy. Not realising what they’re saying.

  5. I may respond “Are you willing to install a camera in your shower/bedroom and livestream all your actions to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter?” Or “Your attitude toward my right to privacy is congruent with my attitude toward your right to speech.”

    I think people the “not doing anything wrong people” believe that what THEY are doing in private is “right”. So, they don’t need privacy rights. They are protected.

    What if laws were passed making it illegal for certain races to marry.? Would they report their friends to the authorities? What is laws were passed making it illegal for their sister to kiss another woman? Would they snitch on her?

  6. I may respond “Are you willing to install a camera in your shower/bedroom and livestream all your actions to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter?” Or “Your attitude toward my right to privacy is congruent with my attitude toward your right to speech.”
    I think people the “not doing anything wrong people” believe that what THEY are doing in private is “right”. So, they don’t need privacy rights. They are protected.
    What if laws were passed making interracial marriages illegal for certain races? Would they report their friends to the authorities? What if laws were passed making it illegal for their sister to kiss another woman? Would they snitch on her?

  7. @jamesshelley Looks good! (I want to add, in the interests of intellectual honesty and thoroughness, that I can’t really recall whether my bathroom thought-experiment is original to me or not. I’ve been thinking a lot about all this for some years, and it may have come out of my discussions and readings, both IRL and online…)

  8. Replied to If you’re not doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide? by James Shelley (jamesshelley.com) Thank you for posting this. I’ve always been a bit stumped when someone says the whole “what does privacy matter if I’m doing nothing wrong?” argument.
    Some of the points put forward – especially about shutting the bathroom door – might make sense to them.

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