In the wake of recent news that the NSA is spying on Americans, I have been particularly struck by the argument that “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.”
At first blush, this argument might seem sound – after all, if the government is merely conducting anti-terrorism surveillance, non-terrorists shouldn’t be affected, right? But if you look more closely, you’ll see this idea is full of holes.
The “nothing to hide” argument mistakenly suggests that privacy is something only criminals desire. In fact, we choose to do many things in private – sing in the shower, make love, confide in family and friends – even though they are not wrong or illegal. Who would not be embarrassed if all of their most intimate details were exposed? Fences and curtains are ways to ensure a measure of privacy, not indicators of criminal behavior. Privacy is a fundamental part of a dignified life.
The “nothing to hide” argument also has things backwards when it suggests that we are all worthy of suspicion until proven otherwise. Our system of justice treats us all as innocent until proven guilty. That applies in everyday life – when the government wants to spy on our daily activities and private conversations – as much as it applies in court. The state bears the burden of showing there is a good reason for suspicion, not the other way around. The refrain “nothing to hide” should not be a license for sweeping government surveillance.
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