'I've Got Nothing to Hide' and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy

In this short essay, written for a symposium in the San Diego Law Review, Professor Daniel Solove examines the nothing to hide argument. When asked about government surveillance and data mining, many people respond by declaring: I've got nothing to hide. According to the nothing to hide argument, there is no threat to privacy unless the government uncovers unlawful activity, in which case a person has no legitimate justification to claim that it remain private. The nothing to hide argument and its variants are quite prevalent, and thus are worth addressing. In this essay, Solove critiques the nothing to hide argument and exposes its faulty underpinnings.

This short, 25 page paper covers more than a year's worth of newspaper articles and blog postings. Rarely do we see such a good discourse about a complex topic like privacy. This isn't a sensationalist piece like many articles out there. The author, A Professor Solove, even makes a point not to be sensationalist. I would quote the whole article if I were allowed, it was that good. But for the author's sake and for yours I will just share a few quotes I especially liked.

In order to respond to the “nothing to hide” argument, it is imperative that we have a theory about what privacy is and why it is valuable. At its core, the “nothing to hide” argument emerges from a conception of privacy and its value. What exactly is “privacy”? How valuable is privacy and how do we assess its value? How do we weigh privacy against countervailing values? These questions have long plagued those seeking to develop a theory of privacy and justifications for its legal protection.

He explains the issue of privacy and that it is complex.

Show me yours and I'll show you mine.

There were quite a few witty comebacks for the 'I've got nothing to hide' argument. This was one of the more entertaining.

Instead of being related by a common denominator, some things share “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.” In other words, privacy is not reducible to a singular essence; it is a plurality of different things that do not share one element in common but that nevertheless bear a resemblance to each other.

This was one of the most insightful notions on privacy I have seen.

As Bruce Schneier aptly notes, the “nothing to hide” argument stems from a faulty “premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong.”

A great quote from one of favorite security experts.

This paper covers a multitude of topics all relevent to privacy on the internet and beyond and the implications of that privacy being violated. The analogies such as it being close to the environment where small erosions may not be tangible or noticible but collectively add up to major effects is very good. If you value privacy and have a hard time understanding why, this paper helps explore the topic covering many viewpoints and arguments for and against them. It is a lengthy read for most people on the internet, but it is well worth it.

Full Research Paper