What is “privacy”? Is there a right balance between privacy and mass surveillance? Does it matter, and if so, why? Are you a “bad” person if you want privacy? The story of Anne Frank illustrates the parallels between modern global surveillance and the Nazi.
A Panopticon is a prison architectural model designed for the maximum efficiency of mass surveillance. Developed by 18th century social theorist Jeremy Bentham, a Panopticon consists of a cylindrical structure with an “inspection house” at its center. From there, a guard can easily watch all inmates, whose cages are always in open view of the central tower.
The essential elements of Bentham’s design were not only that the watchmen should be able to view the prisoners at all times, including times when they were in their cells, but also that the prisoners should be unable to see the watchmen, and so could never be sure whether they were under surveillance.
Bentham conceived the basic plan as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, daycares and asylums. Had he been capable at the time of imagining a network of global, instant, digital communications, he would have doubtlessly added the Internet to his list.
Fast forward 220 years and Edward Snowden reveals that the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Britain — known as the “Five Eyes” — have built watch towers at the “center” of the Internet and effectively turned it into a Panopticon. Had it not been for Snowden and other whistleblowers, this mass surveillance would have continued without nearly as many people knowing about it, and without anyone having much proof.
An international debate about the right amount of privacy versus the right amount of surveillance has since erupted. And while there are many facets to the debate, one line in particular has spread far and wide, becoming a ubiquitous response to privacy advocates:
“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
While this idea manifests in different ways, its core assumptions are often just beneath the surface, when they are not explicit.
Lets take, for example, Google’s Chief Executive Eric Schmidt during an interview with CNBC in 2009.
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place, but if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time, and it’s important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities.”
Or Trent Lott, a former majority leader in the US Senate, during a 2006 surveillance scandal, who asked:
“What are people worried about? What is the problem? Are you doing something you’re not supposed to?”
How about former First Secretary of State of Britain, William Hague.
Oh, and you know who else has made the nothing-to-hide argument? Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda for the Third Reich of the Nazis. He is also credited with popularizing it (also see this), although the origin of the meme is unclear.
Here’s a quote of his that gets to the heart of the matter:
“Every age that has historical status is governed by aristocracies. Aristocracy with the meaning — the best are ruling. Peoples do never govern themselves. That lunacy was concocted by liberalism. Behind its ‘people’s sovereignty’ the slyest cheaters are hiding, who don’t want to be recognized” [emphasis added].
See? If you consider yourself a sovereign individual, you are a cheater who does not want to be recognized or be found out. You, my friend, have something to hide. At least according to Goebbels, contemporary corporatists, politicians and the dull army of folk happily willing to be surveilled.
Joseph Goebbels also brought us this great quote:
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
All that said, “You have nothing to fear, if you have nothing to hide.” Sounds reasonable, right? Only bad people, people doing something wrong or illegal have a real need for privacy.
Well, there are a few problems with this. One of them is that it falls flat on its face at the simplest of tests. Just ask anyone who regurgitates such a statement at you to walk the talk and give you access to their email, social security number, IP, Bitcoin private keys, and some of their #dickpics while they are at it. Nothing to hide right? I’ve tried it — doesn’t really work.
Other rebuttals from the privacy community include:
But perhaps the most powerful argument against the “nothing to hide” meme is that at the core of this idea lies a moral hypocrisy of global and record-breaking proportions.
Privacy can be understood as our capacity to control access to the information within our personal domain. Relationships, thoughts, interests, passions, security secrets (passwords), plans, our home location, phone number, email, habits, health, biases, etc. It means being able to choose who knows what about us, when they learn it, why they know it, and with whom you approve them to share it.
Oxford Dictionary defines privacy as: “A state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people.”
The reason there is value in surveillance as well as in privacy is because knowledge is power. If you know everything there is to know about your enemy — what they think, how they think, what they fear, what they plan and intend to do, and when — while they know nothing about you (your plans, what you care about, what you intend to do) or what you know about them — then you have great power over them. As Glen Greenwald has argued, few power imbalances are so great.
You can manipulate their plans, you can predict their behavior, you can blackmail them, you can threaten them, you can prepare in defense of their plans. You can stay many steps ahead.
Privacy is a defense tool against those you distrust.
The Five Eyes, the Gestapo, the KGB, and every other spy agency that ever was, understand all of this perfectly. This is why they hide information about their intentions and capabilities under hellish layers of bureaucracy and “top secret” red ink.
They so desperately value their privacy, that they call out for the assassination of those who break their ranks. Yes, like Snowden, who was appalled by the corruption of the NSA and plotted his escape with their secrets, who revealed their plans and capabilities, and brought balance to the playing field.
Never in history have spy agencies known so much about the personal lives of everyone else. Never in history have they had so much information to hide. And now, thanks to William Binney, Snowden and other whistleblowers, a lot of what these agencies do in the name of the law and national security is no longer hidden.
The problem with the above argument is that spy agencies are collecting, using and hiding other people’s information. These organizations, defined as “public servants,” should ideally operate with a very high amount of transparency, as far as democracy goes. The fact that the Five Eyes desperately hide so much of what they do is probably why Greenwald calls their actions “secretive” rather than “private.”
So is there no value whatsoever in mass surveillance? What about ISIS, kamikaze jihadists, organized crime and all the other local and international terrifying threats that the mainstream media is constantly bombarding us with?
As Washington’s Blog put it, “You’re much more likely to be killed by brain-eating parasites, texting while driving, toddlers, lightning, falling out of bed, alcoholism, food poisoning, choking on food, a financial crash, obesity, medical errors or ‘autoerotic asphyxiation’ than by terrorists.”
Turns out that statistically the risk of “death by terrorist” is arbitrary, at least in America, especially when compared to the risk of “death by cop.”
New research shows that Americans are 55 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. According to the Guardian, in response to a report released on March 3, 2015:
“The first-ever attempt by US record-keepers to estimate the number of uncounted ‘law enforcement homicides’ exposed previous official tallies as capturing less than half of the real picture. The new estimate [showed] an average of 928 people killed by police annually over eight recent years, compared to 383 in published FBI data.”
But what if mass surveillance is actually helping keep terrorism down? Well, not according to Snowden, who points out that:
“Despite the extraordinary intrusions of the NSA and EU national governments into private communications world-wide, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the ‘Underwear Bomber,’ was allowed to board an airplane traveling from Europe to the United States in 2009. The 290 persons on board were not saved by mass surveillance, but by his own incompetence, when he failed to detonate the device. While even Mutallab’s own father warned the US government he was dangerous in November 2009, our resources were tied up monitoring online games and tapping German ministers. That extraordinary tip-off didn’t get Mutallab a dedicated US investigator. All we gave him was a US visa.”
But mass surveillance, particularly on foreigners, is legal, right? Doesn’t that make it ok?
Well, you know what was also legal? The murder by death camp of Anne Frank, the 15-year-old Jewish girl persecuted by the Nazis in the 1940s. Her crime, being born into a particular religion, lead to an early and cruel grave. Her journal, which was kept with great respect for her privacy by Miep Gies, is considered one of the greatest pieces of nonfiction literature. It tells the story of a Jewish family under Nazi surveillance, as they went into hiding and were eventually destroyed by law enforcement.
As David Montgomery writes in his free ebook “You’re a Criminal in a Mass Surveillance World — How to Not Get Caught”:
“A law-abiding citizen was obligated to turn Anne into the police. To assist her was a crime. In America the Fugitive Slave Law obligated law-abiding citizens to turn in runaway slaves, and assisting them was punishable by 6 months in jail and a $28,000 fine (in today’s dollars).”
What did the Anne Frank and her family have to hide? Their livelihood.
Tim Carney at the Washington Examiner adds:
“Copy a song to your laptop from a friend’s Beyonce CD? You just violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Did you buy some clothes in Delaware because they were tax free? You’re probably evading taxes. Did you give your 20-year-old nephew a glass of wine at dinner? Illegal in many states.
“Citizens that the federal government wants to indict, the federal government can indict if it monitors them closely enough. That’s why it’s so disturbing to learn that the federal government doesn’t need to obtain a warrant on us in order to get our emails and phone records. The same technology used for disclosing networks of terrorists and criminals can be used by repressive regimes for finding dissidents and political dissenters.”
Let us hope that the Western legal machine does not turn the arguably vague and arbitrarily applied label of “terrorist” into the next “Jew.”
The “nothing to hide” meme begs the question: Why aren’t spy agencies transparent about their capabilities, and why don’t they share their insights with the world? Are they doing something they are not supposed to? Do they have something to hide?
While we wait for their response, I’ll leave you with the Five Eyes’ national anthem.