Public Advisory Statement

“The people who want privacy are the ones with something to hide”

This FAQ provides several different approaches to the glib accusation ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’.

The intended sub-text is that privacy is only important to cheats and criminals.

The statement is actually true, but not in the way that the anti-privacy lobby think it is.

This Public Advisory Statement provides a basis for understanding, and dealing with, this particular, privacy-hostile mantra.

The sections below are:

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

‘Everybody has something to hide’

Of course criminals and cheats want to avoid being discovered.

But people who have stamp collections and valuable art-works hanging on the wall of a lightly-protected house don’t want information about their assets to be public. And people don’t generally make the hiding-place for grandma’s pearl necklace widely known. Rich people have a lot to hide. And many suddenly-rich people, such as lottery-winners, may want to avoid too much publicity as well, for fear of suddenly having a lot more friends hanging around them than they used to.

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 attractive men, if they’re concerned about an unwanted admirer. (Ask Hugh Jackman).

Most people in the public eye would accept that a conviction for tax fraud is of legitimate public interest. On the other hand, many people would believe that it’s not appropriate that the public know that a particular person is being audited (because some audits are random, and an audit doesn’t necessarily mean that there are reasonable grounds to even suspect that even an error has been made, let alone a crime 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.

And of course everyone’s passwords and PINs need to be kept secure, i.e. hidden, as a matter of security, and law.

These are just a few examples, but they give a flavour of the things that everyone is 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.

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 really be confronted with:

  • Everybody has something to hide

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