We all have something to hide

The argument that if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear, is being used as John Key's reassurance that the expansion of the powers of the GCSB will not intrude into the average kiwi's life. But how can we take him at his word, when this same quote has been attributed to both George Orwell's 1984 dystopian nightmare and to Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for Nazi Germany? If these examples are what we have to go by, then Key's reassurances mean nothing. We don't have nothing to fear, we have everything to fear even if we have nothing to hide.

We all know that this argument is fundamentally flawed, but sometimes it is difficult to argue the point with someone who insists that they are fine with seemingly any level of government intrusion in their personal lives. Recently, Dan Dicks of PressForTruth.ca, a Canadian alternative media outlet, demonstrated in a simple, fun way, the limits of people’s willingness to abide by the maxim that they have nothing to fear because they have nothing to hide. Setting up his camera on a busy thoroughfare, he asked a number of passersby a series of increasingly invasive questions. “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” “Who was the last person you phoned?” “What was the last thing you Googled?” “What’s your mother’s maiden name?” “What’s your bank account number?” Somewhere in the line of questioning, the person answering would inevitably claim that the question was too personal and would decline to answer. They had reached the limit of what they were willing to reveal about themselves to a total stranger. At what point are we comfortable giving away our information, and to whom? Our facebook generation is increasingly comfortable with disclosing large amounts of personal data yet many are unaware of how much of that information is shared not just with friends, but with corporations ready and willing to use that data to market and advertise products and services to an unwitting public. Will this information soon be freely available to governments as well? To track friend groups, alliances, political events, and in fact anything we post online.

The problem with the nothing-to-hide argument is the underlying assumption that privacy is about hiding bad things. By accepting this assumption, we concede far too much ground and invite an unproductive discussion about information that people would very likely want to hide. Surveillance, for example, can inhibit such lawful activities as free speech, free association, and other rights essential for democracy. But if you're not with us, as they say, you're against us.

The deeper problem with the nothing-to-hide argument is that it myopically views privacy as a form of secrecy. Our response to the "If you have nothing to hide" argument should be simple, we don't need to justify our position. You need to justify yours.

"Governments should not have this capacity. But governments will use whatever technology is available to them to combat their primary enemy – which is their own population," said Noam Chomsky recently about the powers the NSA has in America. Knowledge is power, and when our spy agencies are given more powers to intercept and spy on us, that gives them power over us as a people. Privacy is rarely lost in one fell swoop. It is usually eroded over time, little bits dissolving almost imperceptibly until we finally begin to notice how much is gone. But by then it is usually too late. As Kim Dot Com said at the recent anti GCSB rally “We can learn from history that when government spy agencies are given more powers, they are rarely taken away”.

Systems will make mistakes, and procedures will go wrong. The victims of the benign database state are those who aren't treated in accordance with the intended rules, but are at the wrong end of breakdowns in data accuracy, procedural rules or system errors. Under a benign government, it's not the intended surveillance that makes victims of innocent people, but the errors. How can we trust our government with all this information, when we are constantly hearing in the news about privacy breaches at Inland Revenue, or personal details being sent to the wrong people like the ACC debacle. And this is with the powers that these agencies already have. What can we expect if they are given more power to collect metadata on the entire country?

So why should we fear the idea of a database state, even when we have "nothing to hide"? Well, we do have things to hide. Everyone has things to hide. If someone has a serious health concern, they want to be able to consult their GP without worrying their partner. If you're looking for a new job, there is no reason why you should have to reveal that to your employer. In fact, if even you've committed a serious crime, been convicted, rehabilitated and paid your debt to society, why should you be obliged to reveal that history to your neighbours if you pose no threat to them? Should your friends know if you've got an unauthorised overdraft, or if you've downloaded perfectly legal adult content from the Internet? Some of us have done none of these things, and are in no particular rush to, but we should demand the right to privacy if those situations arise!

The universal declaration of human right states, in one article, "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks." The 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' dichotomy erodes that right by saying "As a matter of course, you should be willing to reveal details about your everyday life which the law has no right to demand that you reveal". If that gets normalised into society, more erosions follow. This legislation runs counter to our responsibilities on the international stage. We are not subservient to the USA and therefore should not be bending over backwards to allow them to access our national citizens information.
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”- Benjamin Franklin
The USA has lost it way in protecting it's people. The founding fathers of that state would likely be turning in their graves if they were alive today.
“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”- Thomas Jefferson

There are four main reasons that articulately sum up why this GCSB legislation is bad for us as individuals and as a nation.

One – The rules may change: Once the invasive surveillance is in place to enforce rules that you agree with, the ruleset that is being enforced could change in ways that you don’t agree with at all – but then, it is too late to protest the surveillance. For example, you may agree to cameras in every home to prevent domestic violence (“and domestic violence only”) – but the next day, a new political force in power could decide that homosexuality will again be illegal, and they will use the existing home cameras to enforce their new rules. Any surveillance must be regarded in terms of how it can be abused by a worse power than today’s.

Two – It’s not you who determine if you have something to fear: You may consider yourself law-abidingly white as snow, and it won’t matter a bit. What does matter is whether you set off the red flags in the mostly-automated surveillance, where bureaucrats look at your life in microscopic detail through a long paper tube to search for patterns. When you stop your car at the main prostitution street for two hours every Friday night, the Social Services Authority will draw certain conclusions from that data point, and won’t care about the fact that you help your elderly grandmother – who lives there – with her weekly groceries. When you frequently stop at a certain bar on your way driving home from work, the Department of Driving Licenses will draw certain conclusions as to your eligibility for future driving licenses – regardless of the fact that you think they serve the world’s best reindeer meatballs in that bar, and never had had a single beer there. People will stop thinking in terms of what is legal, and start acting in self-censorship to avoid being red-flagged, out of pure self-preservation. (It doesn’t matter that somebody in the right might possibly and eventually be cleared – after having been investigated for six months, you will have lost both custody of your children, your job, and possibly your home.)

Three – Laws must be broken for society to progress: A society which can enforce all of its laws will stop dead in its tracks. The mindset of “rounding up criminals is good for society” is a very dangerous one, for in hindsight, it may turn out that the criminals were the ones in the moral right. Less than a human lifetime ago, if you were born a homosexual, you were criminal from birth. If today’s surveillance level had existed in the 1950s and 60s, the lobby groups for sexual equality could never have formed; it would have been just a matter of rounding up the organized criminals (“and who could possibly object to fighting organized crime?”). If today’s surveillance level had existed in the 1950s and 60s, homosexuality would still be illegal and homosexual people would be criminals by birth. It is an absolute necessity to be able to break unjust laws for society to progress and question its own values, in order to learn from mistakes and move on as a society.

Four – Privacy is a basic human need: Implying that only the dishonest people have need of any privacy ignores a basic property of the human psyche, and sends a creepy message of strong discomfort. We have a fundamental need for privacy. I lock the door when I go to the men’s room, despite the fact that nothing secret happens in there: I just want to keep that activity to myself, I have a fundamental need to do so, and any society must respect that fundamental need for privacy. In every society that doesn’t, citizens have responded with subterfuge and created their own private areas out of reach of the governmental surveillance, not because they are criminal, but because doing so is a fundamental human need.

In literature; George Orwell depicted a harrowing totalitarian society in 1984 ruled by a government called Big Brother that watches its citizens obsessively and demands strict discipline. In Franz Kafka's, The Trial, the novel centers around a man who is arrested but not informed why. He desperately tries to find out what triggered his arrest and what's in store for him. He finds out that a mysterious court system has a dossier on him and is investigating him. The Trial depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people's information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used.

History shows us that government institutions in any country and any era can, and do, become the oppressors to the people they are supposed to serve in governance. The phenomena is not restricted to governments in particular countries, nor in particular continents, nor of a particular skin colour. History teaches us that from time to time the governments in even the most reasonable of countries go through periods of paranoia, and when that happens anybody might have a need to hide and everybody has something to fear.

See you in the street!

-Nico, SA


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