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.