The Federal government calls it a ‘Human Services Access Card’

We call it for what it is: a National ID Card System

Frequently Asked Question No. 10

If I’ve got nothing to hide, why should I be afraid of a National Identification Scheme?

This FAQ provides several different approaches to the glib accusation ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’ – whose sub-text is that privacy is only important to cheats and criminals.

All examples provided in this FAQ are real ones. They are not imaginary and they have not not sensationalised. They are derived from the experience of privacy researchers and privacy protection agencies, ample documentation exists, and many of them arise frequently.

The sections below are:

‘Everybody has something to hide’

Of course criminals and cheats want to avoid being discovered.

But rich people don’t want information about their assets to be public. That’s especially the case with suddenly-rich people like lottery-winners.

Many ill people don’t want their health data publicised. And many people who suffer disabilities prefer others not to know about it.

Protected witnesses and victims of domestic violence need their addresses suppressed, or they will be in serious physical danger. Celebrities don’t want information to leak out about where they are and where they’re going next. Rich businesspeople and their families, who fear they are at risk of blackmail and kidnap, feel the same way. So do attractive young women and even men, if they’re concerned about an unwanted admirer.

Most people in the public eye would accept that a conviction for tax fraud is of legitimate public interest; but many would believe that it’s not appropriate that the public know they are being audited (because some audits are random, and an audit doesn’t necessarily mean that there are reasonable grounds to even suspect that a crime has been committed). Nor would they expect it to be public information that they have been issued with a revised tax assessment – which implies they made an error rather than that they’ve been accused of tax-cheating. And most people who aren’t in the public eye would wonder what justification there is for any such information about them to be published.

These are just a few examples, but they give a flavour of the things that people are completely justified in wanting to hide from other people.

Levels of Need

The reasons why people want to hide information from other people arise at various levels.

For many people at various times, physical safety depends on not being found by the wrong people. For this reason, address is a sensitive item of data for a significant number of people. The data on a Register like the one the Government proposes would be a ‘honey-pot’. It would attract every debt collector, private detective and criminal in the country. It would be accessible by large numbers of people on low wages, most of whom are subject to ‘social engineering’ approaches, and some of whom are readily bribable.

At a psychological level, people need private space. They find it difficult to negotiate with a public servant who has access to copious quantities of data about them, because that data provides the public servant with power. It’s especially difficult to negotiate when the data is erroneous, or outdated, or incomplete, or misleading. And that’s exactly what data tends to be when it’s drawn from multiple sources. Most people try to deny giving up information that they see as being irrelevant to the business at hand; and so they should.

From a social perspective, people need to be free to behave, and to associate with others, subject to broad social mores, but without the continual threat of being subject to their behaviour being observed, measured and recorded. The more data we surrender, the more we reduce ourselves to the appalling, inhuman, constrained context that was imposed on people in countries behind the Iron Curtain and the Bamboo Curtain.

For economic progress to be achieved, people need to be free to innovate. International competition is fierce, and countries with high labour costs like Australia need to be clever if they want to sustain their standard-of-living. But cleverness has to be continually re-invented. All innovators are, by definition, ‘deviant’ from the norms of the time, and they are both at risk, and perceive themselves to be at risk, if they lack private space in which to experiment. The chilling effect that surveillance brings with it stifles innovation.

Crucially, political freedoms are completely dependent on people feeling themselves to be permitted to think, and to argue, and to act. Knowing that a lot of personal data is stored away, and is accessible to determined political opponents, chills people’s behaviour and speech, and undermines democracy.

We need to accept that having something to hide is part of being human. We shouldn’t be embarrassed about it, and we shouldn’t let other people trivialise the importance of privacy by telling us that we should be embarrassed about it.

A Single Controlled Identity is a Weapon of Political Power

It’s clearly necessary for each government program, and for each service-provider, to gather some personal data about its clients, and to store it, and to access it when providing services. That data is associated with an identifier that the individual uses when dealing with that organisation.

Few people object to such processes, provided that:

  • the need for the data is justified
  • the relevance of the data is demonstrated
  • use and disclosure of personal data are tightly controlled
  • data quality measures are implemented and sustained
  • appropriate security protections are applied to all personal data to protect against:
    • unauthorised external access (through such techniques as break-in or ‘database hacking’, and ‘social engineering’)
    • inappropriate access and inappropriate use by insiders
  • substantial security protections are applied to sensitive personal data

But a National Identification Scheme like the Government’s so-called ‘Access Card’ is a completely different proposition from a personal data system operated by one agency or business for specific purposes.

The purpose of this scheme is to facilitate the consolidation of the many identities that each person has with many different organisations into a single Government-approved identity.

That single identity is then capable of being controlled by public servants, and by the Government. If a person transgresses:

  • their benefits can be denied
  • services can be denied to them
  • they can be denied access to transport to get around the country
  • permission to leave the country can be denied

It was common for internal passports to be used in such ways in South Africa under apartheid, and in Soviet Russia. Similar measures have been emergent in the US and Australia for some time, initially in the context of air travel, and then toll-roads, and now by means of passports and the Access Card.

If you’re confident that this Government would never do such things, then consider that you’re not just trusting this Government – you’re trusting every Government that will ever exist in this country.

And if you’re confident that no elected Government would ever ‘go bad’, remember that good Germans elected Adolf Hitler.

And if you think that insurrections never happen, remember the massive death-count among educated people in Cambodia during the rule of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.

And if you’re confident that no invader would ever behave badly, think about what both the German and Russian invaders did to the citizens of Poland only 60 years ago (where one-sixth of the population died – over 90% of them civilians), and what the Japanese administration of the same period did to people in the many countries that they controlled all the way from Manchuria to New Guinea.

If we ever permit a scheme like the ‘Access Card’ to be imposed, we deny our descendants the kind of constructively loose, pleasant and adaptive society that we’ve enjoyed, and we commit them instead to a tightly controlled, disciplined, and ultimately stagnant society.

Hiding from the Word ‘Hide’

This FAQ has set out to confront the idea that ‘only guilty people have anything to hide’. Some people may feel uncomfortable about the strong concept of ‘hiding’, and might like to think about the need for privacy in less direct terms.

So here are some alternative metaphors:

  • people need to ‘be less visible’
  • people need to ‘be harder to find’
  • people need to protect some ‘personal space’ around themselves
  • people need to be able to sustain ‘social distance’ from other people, especially from organisations, and most of all from impersonal large institutions
  • people need a front door that they can close and lock
  • people need to be able to ‘draw the curtains’, around their lives as well as their living room
  • people need to be able to avoid going forth naked into the world every day
  • people need to avoid having to deal on an unequal basis with organisations that have a lot of information about them
  • people need to sustain their ability to make their own decisions and determine their own lives rather than having powerful institutions do it for them

Other Articles on the Theme

Glib Responses

If you want to respond to the glib ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’ with another quip, Bruce Schneier suggests these:

  • If I’m not doing anything wrong, then you have no cause to watch me
  • Because the government gets to define what’s wrong, and they keep changing the definition
  • Because you might do something wrong with my information
  • Quis custodiet custodes ipsos? (Who watches the watchers?)
  • Absolute power corrupts absolutely

Here are a couple of variants of the second of Bruce’s suggestions:

  • The Jews in the Polish ghettoes had nothing to hide. The Jews in The Netherlands didn’t either. Nor the educated people in Cambodia. And they all died in their hundreds of thousands (Reference 1, Reference 2)
  • There will always be another bigotry

And here’s another approach:

  • OK then, so you’re happy to tell me your bank balance and your bank account PIN. And the reason for your last visit to the doctor, whether you have ever seen a psychiatrist, how you and your partner voted at the last election, and the last ten websites you visited

But of course the theme of this page is that the glib ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’ is naïve and dangerous and should be confronted with:

  • Everybody has something to hide

If you are aware of errors or omissions in this document, please let us know.

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