"Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say." - Edward Snowden
I have nothing to hide has become the mantra of privacy advocates, typically framing information-gathering services like a mobile phone plan or GMail as a choice. The United States, unable to spend time monitoring every piece of communication between its citizens, now integrates what it calls oblique surveillance, surveying information at the source where it is being accumulated through programs such as PRISM.
In the last six months of 2014 Facebook reported receiving more than 14,000 requests for private information from law enforcement. In 2008 Sprint responded to 8 million pings for real time customer location data, which forced them to automate the process. This trend toward automation, including things like license plate scanners, drones, and Facebook's information scraping represents a massive shift in how law enforcement operates.
Unfortunately, Facebook doesn’t need your permission to know who you are. You don’t even need to have an account - when someone installs Facebook on their phone, the application grabs all of their stored contact data, SMS messages, calendars, and even your phone calls. This isn’t just limited to the social media giant: GMail, Android, and numerous other services use data mining strategies that the government can access.
China has already been using data-mining practices for months, the only difference is that their government has been pretty open about it. Here in the United States, the scrutiny of a person’s personal life mostly exists in the realm of celebrities and the powerful, but with the ever-connectedness of social media, that might change from celebrity circles to your friend group.
What might these practices look like on American soil? Your friends and family might see that stuff you’re liking and sharing on social media that happens to be against the prerogative of the state. Since your social score affects theirs, they are quickly cutting ties with you. How dare you speak out against the party? How dare you ruin their credit?
These scenarios are the cost of the government improving citizen behavior.
It’s a commonly encountered assumption that if someone is arrested and charged with a crime , they are quite likely guilty of it,despite America’s obsession with the phrase innocent until proven guilty. In reality, anyone can be manipulated by the threat of the appearance of having done something wrong.
If you really think about it, the average American commits several felonies per year. Have you ever connected to an unsecured wifi network without permission? Felony. Have you ever used a fake name on the Internet? Felony. It doesn’t matter how innocent you would describe yourself to be, the fact is that there is absolutely some inane law that you have broken at some point in your life.
If everyone’s actions were being monitored, and everyone technically violates some obscure law at some point, then punishment becomes purely selective. Government agencies would have the agency to punish anyone they’d like, whenever they choose. As Moxie Marlinspike explains,
Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100% effective, such that any potential law offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed. If perfect law enforcement had been a reality in Minnesota, Colorado, and Washington since their founding in the 1850s, it seems quite unlikely that these recent changes would have ever come to pass. How could people have decided that marijuana should be legal, if nobody had ever used it? How could states decide that same sex marriage should be permitted, if nobody had ever seen or participated in a same sex relationship?
He further explains that within a liberal democracy, free speech allows us to create a marketplace of ideas to collectively choose the society we want using the political process.
If law enforcement are able to make your comply with whatever it is they want, most wouldn’t be inclined to risk their reputation, employment, relationships, etc. The power to blackmail a person into compliance is only strengthened when said person has no access to security for their data; when everything a person does is recorded, scanned, and analyzed, and freely exchanged by those in power.
Again, it's not a matter of what the current government might do, or an individual who abuses their access to your information might do, but what future governments might do. Once recorded, your data is going to be preserved forever, and potentially used by anyone. What if your work fires you for posting a conservative comment on Facebook? What if boards of colleges use private information to favor liberal families? What if there is a military coup and the government uses your gun registration data to know which houses to take guns from?
It is bad for an imperfect government to be able to predict all crime. Many of the greatest steps forward in human history were only made possible by people hiding information from their government. If the church had access to Galileo’s research journals and notes we could be scientifically hundreds of years behind. If King George had perfect information America would have never been a country. There is no government on Earth that can act responsibly with unlimited access to information, and lacks the ability to distinguish between a negative and positive disruption to it’s social order and laws, therefore an unlimited spying program can only hinder the next social step forward.
The dilemma at hand isn’t a matter of whether or not information can be used against you, but rather about a government creating a database that has the potential to further oppress its population. The government’s access to data collection combined with its ability to arbitrarily enforce laws through selective policing, makes giving this entity access to private data simply not in the best interests of the people it is intended to serve. Don’t fear the surveillance state because you might have something illegal, fear the surveillance state because it is a tremendous institutional barrier to meaningful societal progress.