Nothing to hide

June 10, 2013


News  / 

With all the stuff going on with surveillance and data privacy — especially the past week — it’s worthwhile to revisit this essay by Daniel J. Solove, a professor of law at George Washington University, on why privacy matters even if you “have nothing to hide.”

“My life’s an open book,” people might say. “I’ve got nothing to hide.” But now the government has large dossiers of everyone’s activities, interests, reading habits, finances, and health. What if the government leaks the information to the public? What if the government mistakenly determines that based on your pattern of activities, you’re likely to engage in a criminal act? What if it denies you the right to fly? What if the government thinks your financial transactions look odd—even if you’ve done nothing wrong—and freezes your accounts? What if the government doesn’t protect your information with adequate security, and an identity thief obtains it and uses it to defraud you? Even if you have nothing to hide, the government can cause you a lot of harm.

“But the government doesn’t want to hurt me,” some might argue. In many cases, that’s true, but the government can also harm people inadvertently, due to errors or carelessness.

You might not have anything to hide right now, but maybe a random string of choices that was completely harmless looks a lot like something else a few years from now, to someone sniffing around the archives. The patterns when there are no patterns sort of thing. Personal data without the person. [via @hmason]


  • Actually it’s worse than that. The legal environment is such that you really have no idea if you are or are not doing anything illegal at any given time. There are some 20 thousand individual statutes in the US not to mention innumerable regulations means that you are more likely than not in violation of one or more laws.

  • I have personal experience of a person being arrested on a warrant and held in jail for four days because they gave evidence in a car accident. This person was in no way responsible for the accident.

    What happened is that some bright boy in the police department filled out a warrant for domestic violence and somehow decided that this person, who matched the actual person sought in name only, was the one to put on the warrant. This innocent person had no criminal record, no priors, no nothing, but they were in the system and this idiot simply grabbed the first matching name he pulled up in their system.

    Now, do the police visit the address listed or call the phone number listed to check this innocent person out in any way? No, they post the warrant on their system and wait for some chance encounter with some policeman somewhere to bring them in. The innocent person in question happened to be a passenger in a car stopped for speeding and that’s all it took.

    So, simply having your name in some system can get you arrested and held until your bail hearing, even if you were in that system as an innocent witness of record to someone else’s crime.

    Million to one chance? I understand that at least three other people had this happen to them in the same county.

  • Terry Gilliam’s movie “Brazil” is based on exactly this notion – through an careless data handling mistake, an innocent man’s life is ruined, and the whistle-blower who tries to right the injustice is taken down with him. Chillingly realistic.

  • Doggonesmart June 11, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    … tells you why you should never agree to be interviewed by the police. … I would talk to …