“I have nothing to hide” argument and other excuses

A very common argument people use when they claim that an average person should not worry about government surveillance because “I have nothing to hide!”. It is just one of the many excuses you certainly have already heard a million times against privacy advocates. Most people believe in good faith that surveillance processes are not directed at them, but at wrongdoers and criminals, others from them – despite the overwhelming evidence that the monitoring of individual behaviour has become routine in our society.

This argument does not stand from many points of view. Edward Snowden said “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.” It would be like giving up a right thinking it does not apply to us. One important counterpoint to this argument is that digital tracking not only can put us at risk but all our entire network of friends, colleagues and general contacts. We are all very much interconnected online, so we cannot only think of ourselves here; especially if we belong to privileged groups, since these issues disproportionately affect certain groups in society based on their appearance, ethnicity, religion and sexuality.

For instance, a government can leak information about a person and cause damage to them, or use information they hold about a person to deny access to services. Governments can also make mistakes, so we could all find ourselves in a similar situation, even if we are (or believe to be) innocent. It is also based on a very narrow understanding of privacy and so it doesn’t really answer to the plurality of privacy problems steering from data collection, tracking and surveillance practices.

Furthermore, no matter if you belong to a majority or a minority group, and no matter your perception of potentially being “at risk” online, the massive use of digital technologies and the pervasive presence of digital data harvesting tools affect everyone, all the time. In our everyday online life, every one of us shares many personal information about ourselves: not only political, religious, ideological and sexual orientation, but also health conditions, income, personal/private relations, psychological condition, and so on. This massive amount of data that we share and transfer, consciously or unconsciously, exposes all of us to pervasive processes of profilation and datafication which can be used, and are actually used, to shape our online world and influence our online and offline behaviours.