You’ve Got Nothing to Hide, Eh?

In a recent blog post, I wrote about Edward Snowden’s AMA.  I mentioned that Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who was first contacted by Edward Snowden with sensitive NSA documents, rejects the idea that surveillance is acceptable to an extent because some citizens have nothing to hide. I didn’t delve into his argument in that post, but since it has become a frequent topic of conversation recently, I’ll describe it now.

In a short TED Talk, Greenwald describes why privacy matters. Those claiming that they have nothing to hide believe in two types of people – good and bad. They are good and do not fear surveillance, and anyone fearing privacy invasion must be doing something wrong. That being said, most all of us use intense privacy settings on our online accounts. Greenwald even goes through the same exercise we did in class. He claims that in his experience, most people stating that they have nothing to hide still refuse to turn over an email username and password. While a few in our class did turn this information over, I would be willing to guess that most Americans would not.

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There are two major arguments that I found important in this presentation. The first is that privacy is universally craved by humans because our behavior changes when we are being watched. Greenwald brings up the Panopticon, a tool used in prisons to improve inmate behavior. The design of this guard building allows a guard to observe inmates, but the inmates have no idea if they are being watched. I think that when it comes to online surveillance, perhaps we do not realize in an obvious way (i.e. a guard tower) that we are being watched. We know the government performs surveillance because there is plenty of data about it, but because we don’t actively see ourselves being watched, we don’t worry about it.

The second, and in my opinion, more important point is about basic human freedoms. While it’s likely that none of us are currently planning on coordinating some kind of revolt against a powerful institution, maybe one day we will want to. And if that day comes, shouldn’t we have the right to?  Mass surveillance increases fear and makes the willingness to dissent disappear. I believe this possibility for dissent is crucial to a democracy in which people are supposed to have some amount of power.


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