This curious aphorism has, at times, threatened to deaden the debate on privacy that arose since Snowden blew the whistle on transnational mass surveillance. The submissive posture of ‘I have nothing to hide and therefore nothing to fear’ is a popular resort for those avoidant of critical thought – perhaps due to their subjection to a surveillance system so powerful, so omniscient, so secret, and so unknowingly invading their world, that it had only been encountered, until now, as a fearful thought experiment in dystopian fiction. Some, not least the political class, seem unable to deal with the reality.
Accordingly, ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ is the kind of eerie statement you would expect to hear only in a totalitarian regime, and perhaps obediently echoed by its brainwashed subjects who you, as the privileged, educated, and valued citizen of a Western democracy, would pity. “We” have had our debates on individual liberty, privacy, democratic practices and balances of governmental power. We have responded to tyrannical tragedies of political history, we have evolved with robust constitutions, we have proudly committed to human rights acts, and we have expected them to be followed closely.
But it seems that with the birth of the New World, the digital world, we will see the same struggle between power and liberty that the Old World has endured for all civilisation. The New World seems to be a tabula rasa, with the hard lessons gained about power, politics and human nature momentarily forgotten and constitutional values trampled in the race to dominate and exploit the new abstract terrain.
A person parroting that they have ‘nothing to hide’ and therefore ‘nothing to fear’ is saying something so void, that it doesn’t necessarily mean they are pro-mass surveillance. It means that they are not anti-mass surveillance. It means that, realizing it has been imposed on their life, the lives of all those they love and care about, and the lives of people further afar who they may never meet, they consider themselves not personally at risk and therefore have abstained from further critical analysis. Effectively, they are proclaiming a commitment to unconditionally submit.
Let’s respond to the ‘nothing to hide’ aphorism in the following ten points.
1. You do have something to ‘hide’:
Wanting to keep something private is not synonymous with hiding illegal information. Notice how this mantra obscures that difference.
You do have something to ‘hide’ insomuch as you most likely wish to have some control over what information you share, and who with. If you disagree, you may as well publicly post all of your passwords online.
The term ‘hide’ smears the right to privacy with an insinuation of guilt. Is there really something wrong with a private citizen trying to keep a secret from the government?
One must worry when one of the New World’s most powerful unelected figures, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, says: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”. In the wake of the Snowden revelations, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was addressing James Clapper, or some other lying, red-faced spy-master, to make a point about governmental accountability – but he was actually addressing you, the public. (This, from a man who recently attended one of the only international conferences to enforce a media blackout – the infamously secret and undemocratic Bilderberg Conference – is wildly hypocritical.)
By Schmidt’s principles, if you don’t want anyone to know that you are homosexual, then maybe you shouldn’t be homosexual in the first place. If you don’t want anyone to know that you are seeking help for an addiction, maybe you shouldn’t have an addiction in the first place. If you don’t want anyone to know that you have been raped, maybe you shouldn’t have been raped in the first place.
2. Maybe you do have something to ‘fear’:
At the very least, we must be cautious of the misuse of data, and the risk of ‘turnkey tyranny’ (see point 4 and point 10). It is, at the very least, unnerving that a transnational mass surveillance system has been constructed around the Earth with no democratic mandate, hardly any governmental oversight, and no public knowledge. Your information is now being collected, recorded and stored. You have no say in that. As cryptographer Bruce Schneier succinctly put it: “It’s a poor idea to deploy a technology that could some day facilitate a police state”.
In a live chat via his official support website, Snowden warned against the possibilities of the “retroactive investigation” that permanent records of all civil activity enable: “I think a person should be able to dial a number, make a purchase, send an SMS, write an email, or visit a website without having to think about what it’s going to look like on their permanent record”, he said.
But the principle of ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ accepts no nuances in your private life. According to this mantra, the only reason you wouldn’t want to expose every experience, every emotion, every relationship, every conversation, every interest, every thought, every concern, every movement, would be because you are a criminal engaging in illegal activity – maybe you are a terrorist…
This black and white depiction of privacy clouding public discourse is clearly far from reality, and neither does it represent how we have chosen to live our lives until now. We make different information about ourselves (and others) available to different people – and some things, often our deepest thoughts, we keep just to ourselves (and sometimes our web browser). Most of us, at some point, will ‘delete’ our browser history and a plethora of our communications data, such as text messages. Sometimes we use anonymising practices, such as commenting on online media under pseudonyms, or giving incorrect personal information when filling forms. Online passwords and phone locks for smart phones are almost ubiquitously used.
It is not just our everyday behaviours that evidence how much we care about privacy, but our human rights laws. 193 nations coming together under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to agree on Article 12 is evidence enough that privacy is a vital civil liberty.
3. Anyway, it’s not just about you:
This is a ‘mass’ surveillance system. Even if you are not concerned about how it will affect you personally, consider the impact it may have on others – particularly those in politically vulnerable situations.
In fact, many of us who are currently using cryptography and anonymising online practices (such as using the Tor browser) are, wrongly, surveillance targets. Journalists, activists, and specifically digital activists – the very people trying to ensure that the law is upheld by spying agencies – are commonly targeted and sometimes persecuted. Conversely, no legal action has yet been successfully taken by states against those who have secretly created, and openly lied about, this mass surveillance monstrosity.
People use cryptography to protect themselves, and to symbolise the value of privacy. But the fact is, that if the NSA or GCHQ wants to hack your laptop or phone and intercept your communications, they very likely will do so successfully. The state’s hacking technologies to do this are astounding.
A very important reason, therefore, to use cryptography and take privacy measures is because these are practical acts of solidarity. The more people anonymise online, and the larger the encryption cloud through which we communicate, the greater protection there is for the privacy for the public.
4. We can’t predict the future:
And we must learn from the past. We need to consider what the best, and indeed worst, ends of these new technologies could be. Milton Mayer compellingly retells the lesson of principiis obsta and finem respice (‘resist the beginnings’ and ‘consider the end’) in ‘They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45’:
“Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that (…) one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”
“In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘You’re seeing things’ or ‘You’re an alarmist.’
And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end?”
“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. (…) The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all.”
The mass surveillance system in place provides the infrastructure for what Snowden has termed ‘turnkey tyranny’ – totalitarian ‘information awareness’ that could be used with devastating effect. Information is power, and we must be particularly cautious in the New World, as information today benefits from storage with infinitely more time and space than we could have conceived of in the Old World.
Even Wolfgang Schmidt, a former Stasi member, spoke out in East Germany in the wake of the Snowden revelations asserting, “It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used. This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”
We cannot predict the political future, and neither can we predict our own future, or how information from our past may be used against us in the future. Dan Bongino, a former US Secret Service agent said: “You give the government information and it will be abused. It is not a matter of if it’ll be abused, it’s only a matter of when… It’s only a matter of time before someone slaps an email on your desk from fifteen years ago (…) and says ‘look what we got against you.’”
5. Not only ‘bad people’ are spied on:
The victims of digital surveillance emerging from the Snowden revelations include a host of global leaders such as Angela Merkel, Dilma Rousseff, Ehud Olmert, Joaquin Almunia; charities, such as Unicef and Medecins du Monde; and sometimes, NSA employees’ love interests. And, of course, the rest of the world is ingested by default.
It is too soon to be able to give comprehensively evidenced accounts of the many thousands of victims of full-force digital spying – but anecdotally, many activists have reported unusual happenings and communications interference. Jacob Applebaum, for instance, the Tor developer and independent journalist, keeps a notebook of the events which paint a pretty clear picture of prolonged harassment and intimidation, both online and offline.
Here are some case studies from the UK, which demonstrate where the state’s surveillance contractors are known to focus their efforts.
Former undercover police officer of the ‘Special Demonstration Squad’ Peter Francis, aka anti-racism campaigner ‘Peter Black’, recently blew the whistle on undercover British policing tactics. As an infiltrator of anti-racist campaign groups in the 1990’s (yes, seriously), one of Francis’ tasks was to collect any information on the murdered black 18 year old Stephen Lawrence’s family and friends which could be used to publicly smear them, damaging their legal campaign and inferably the wider anti-racist social movement.
In this case, it was not activists but victims who were targeted by spying – a family who would never have imagined in their darkest nightmares the tragedy that would befall them. When it did, and the family was unexpectedly thrown into the public eye fighting for justice, their ‘information’, past and present, became very valuable to the state.
We have known, since the outing of environmental activist ‘Mark Stone’ as DC Mark Kennedy in 2011, that the British state and its contractors have a lucrative habit of spying on peaceful social movements. Costing the taxpayer around £250,000 a year, Kennedy’s infiltration of the green movement lead to considerable tree hugging, free loving, and largely unsuccessful attempts to convict environmentalists of such heinous crimes as ‘trespass’.
Kennedy worked for the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which operates under the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Terrorism and Allied Matters Committee, codenamed ACPO (TAM). Despite an impressive air of officialdom, ACPO is in fact a private company contracted by the Home Office to fight terrorism, extremism, and apparently, Earth-adoring vegans. Indeed, modern surveillance is so extensive, that is been partially outsourced in both the offline and online realms.
6. Mass surveillance is a defence barrier to social change:
Mass surveillance and social change really do not go hand in hand.
Authorities have a habit of obstructing social change – even for broadly supported anti-racist and environmental causes, it seems (see point 5).
Increasingly, surveillance capabilities mean that social movements will be better infiltrated, compromised, destabilised and criminalised. Declassified documents recently evidenced the NSA’s surveillance of Martin Luther King – which, by its own admission, was ‘disreputable if not outright illegal’. Even whistleblower-crusher President Obama admitted, “I have often reminded myself that I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents like Dr. King, who were spied on by their own government,” amidst his NSA apologism speech. It is also reported that he has insinuated an awareness of intelligence blackmailing, and privately told disillusioned donors, “Don’t you remember what happened to Dr. King?”
Documents revealed that Frank Church was also monitored when serving as a Democrat Senator for Idaho in the 1970s. Church had chaired a U.S. Senate committee into intelligence gathering, after which he warned of this:
“If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.”
Knowing that we are subjected to the all-seeing eye extends the barriers to social change much further than their birthplace in NSA/GCHQ headquarters. The criminalisation and surveillance of activists makes them a vulnerable group who ‘feel’ watched and who cannot trust their friends or perhaps even their partners. This culture may make it increasingly uncomfortable and undesirable to vocalise social, political, or corporate criticism – let alone to act upon it.
7. Mass surveillance does not combat terrorism:
Mass surveillance systems are clearly not designed to collect information on specific, individual terrorists (unless you think Angela Merkel is one). The White House’s review panel of the NSA’s telephony metadata collection program, and the US government privacy board, concluded that there is no evidence that any terrorist attacks have been prevented by this mass data collection, despite the claims of the NSA. What mass surveillance creates, is a needle-in-a-haystack situation.
Roll back to May 2010, and Chelsea Manning (allegedly) said to Adrian Lamo:
(7:40:56 AM) bradass87: i know that approximately 85-90% of global transmissions are sifted through by NSA… but vast majority is noise… so its getting harder and harder for them to track anything down…
(7:41:31 AM) bradass87: its like finding a needle in a haystack…
A week before Snowden blew the whistle, the BBC published a woefully prophetic article which invited readers to “Imagine that the intelligence services had unlimited resources and could monitor everyone’s phone lines” (but reassured “… the security services do not in fact monitor everyone”).
The piece quotes Howard Wainer, “Distinguished Research Scientist at the National Board of Medical Examiners in the United States”, who details the problems with mass spying, even in a world which had software that could detect would-be terrorists with 99% accuracy.
In the highly unlikely event that such an accurate system existed, Wainer says, 1% of the population would be picked up by mistake. So, taking the US as an example, “mixed in with the 3,000 true terrorists that you’ve identified are going to be the three million completely innocent people, who are now being sent off to Guantanamo Bay”.
Furthermore, the algorithms used to identify suspicious material are of limited use as they are always fighting the last war, according Louise Amoore, a data and security expert and professor at Durham University. “Our research is suggesting that the tuning of the algorithm reflects almost always past events” – pretty useless, when you consider that the likelihood of another Chechnyan attack on a Boston marathon is pretty slim.
It was apt that in this same BBC article, the former head of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington used the Stasi to example the perils of mass surveillance and “overdosing” on information. Intelligence services would “strangle themselves” with too much information, she said, because “they can’t sort out from it what they need to know and what they don’t need to know”.
Since the intelligence services and security experts themselves are only too aware of the inefficiency, impracticalities and dangers of using mass surveillance to target terrorism, and the White House review found no evidence that mass telephony data has prevented any terrorist plots (let alone attacks), we have to responsibly consider the possibility that information is not, as is claimed, being used purely to target terrorism.
8. Privacy is a human right:
Article 12 of the UNDHR protects your right to privacy. If you are a UK citizen, so does the legal requirement for surveillance warrants, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, 2000. Or, if you are a US citizen, so does the Fourth Amendent to your constitution. There is good reason that these laws exist (see other nine points).
An expert legal opinion given to UK MPs advised that GCHQ’s mass surveillance is illegal, and that the agency is “using gaps in regulation to commit serious crime with impunity”, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticised the rushed data retention (DRIP) bill as it purposefully undermines EU privacy concerns. Similarly, the US government’s Privacy and Civil Liberites Oversight Board concluded that the NSA’s collection of every US phone record on a daily basis violates the legal rights of Americans, and recommended the surveillance program be shut down.
9. You behave differently when you are watched:
We know, from decades of research in behavioural psychology, that being watched affects the way people behave, often beneath the level of awareness.
And we are living in a digital ‘watchtower’ – every single action online is traced and logged by default; as are all of your calls and messages. Even the camera and microphone on your smartphone and laptop can be remotely activated to spy on you. Perhaps more powerful still, is the fact that you cannot see, cannot feel, and do not know when you are being watched – but you know that you always may be.
Consider Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ structure. A Panopticon is a circular prison structure with a central watchtower. lt utilises a consciousness of permanent visibility as a form of power, where no bars, chains, or heavy locks are necessary for domination. The acute awareness of intense surveillance achieves self-policing of behaviours, and ultimately results in a prison of minds – a human quarantine void of challenging thoughts or individual ideas.
It is this “chilling effect” of surveillance on human behavior that Snowden views as the greatest danger. In a live chat, he acknowledged: “Study after study has show that human behaviour changes when we know we’re being watched. Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively *are* less free.”
10. NSA/GCHQ’s secret transnational surveillance programs are an affront to democracy.
The birth of mass surveillance and its continued operation has taken place entirely outside of the democratic arena. This is the work of unelected intelligence officials – you, your elected government, and even heads of state, had no idea of its fullest capacity.
Were it not for the courage of Edward Snowden, the public and politicians alike would not even be aware of the surveillance we are subjected to, and the subterranean monitoring capabilities of the technology we unwittingly use everyday.
Snowden said: “For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished.” He continued: “… remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself. All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed.”
Thank you Snowden, for giving us the right to know.
Resist online surveillance
- Don’t take it lying down. Write to your MP or representative because, after all, you pay them to read and send (to often template) replies to your letters – make them work for it.
- Defend against dragnet surveillance – see chapters 3, 5 and 6 of this handbook.
- Now that you’re a citizen exercising your human right to privacy, the government may not like it. Journalists, activists and campaigners may be at increased risk of snooping. Defend against targeted surveillance – use the free Information Security for Journalists Handbook.
- Heal the world! Go to and/or organise a cryptoparty https://www.cryptoparty.in/parties
- If you have achieved the above, pat yourself on the back. Freedom!