I’ve Got Nothing To Hide

A few days ago, I was ranting about the fact that our Chancellor supported plans to search the computers of German citizens without their knowledge, in an attempt to help fight terrorism. That article used a few fairly loaded words, partly because I felt frustrated with the lack of competence these ideas show, but also because I’ve cultivated a strong sensitivity to privacy concerns of various kinds.

It’s something of a coincidence that a few days later, an essay linked on /. explores the term “privacy”, it’s meaning, and an argument as to why it’s supposedly not as important as people might feel. That essay is fairly long-winded, though, and in my view doesn’t adequately argue why we should care about our privacy.

A common reaction to any proposal about collecting data on people is to say “I’ve got nothing to hide, let them collect data on me!”. Borrowing a bit from the above mentioned essay, let me first explain why that reaction, while somewhat understandable, misses the problem completely.

Imagine a stranger opening the door to your home, walking in uninvited, and starting to rifle through your belongings. Instead of eyes, he’s got video cameras, recording everything he sees. He asks you to undress, and goes on to scrutinize every inch of your body. Yeah, you know, the whole rubber glove — stretch — snap thing.

Don’t tell me you wouldn’t feel violated. We all would1.

What this description illustrates is that people who think they’ve got nothing to hide define privacy the wrong way.

The first fallacy in the “nothing to hide” argument is to define privacy as hiding wrongs.

Privacy isn’t about hiding wrongs, it’s about satisfying a deep-seated psychological need for protection.

I just googled for the terms “psychology” and “privacy” together, to find something that would back up the above statement. I’m no psychologist myself, so I resort to citing them. What I found in one of the first hits was a document titled “The Psychology of Torture“. To quote the excerpt shown in Google:

Torture entails all the isolation and extreme solitude of privacy with none of the usual security embodied therein.

That fits my argumentation perfectly for two reasons:

  1. It defines privacy as dependent on isolation and solitude.
  2. It asserts my claim, that privacy is closely related to security.

Isolation and solitude — one defines the absence of others, the other some kind of barrier between oneself and others. What both cases have in common is that they define states in which you are free of the scrutiny of (and peer pressure from) others. That is what privacy is all about, the individual freedom to be (by) yourself.

We have such a deep-seated need for privacy that we may as well call it an animal instinct. After all, our need of privacy is shared by most animals. Animals build nests, dig warrens, or inhabit caves, to hide, shelter and protect themselves and their young — just like we build houses. Those homes aren’t just about shelter from the environment or predators, though, they are about a feeling of security even when there is no real security to be found.

The first pet I’ve had was a beautiful chocolate berkshire2 rat whom his previous owner named “Tequila“. He used to be treated fairly badly, and it took a long time to draw him out and get him to follow his inquisitive nature.

What I’ve learned from Tequila, I’ve seen repeated with various other pets. In order to achieve a feeling of personal safety, animals seek dark, low spaces, that they can squeeze their vulnerable back into, and defend easily. Once I’ve managed to gain their trust, however, the first place they turn to when they are scared is me. Even with small pets, it’s more about a feeling of security than the actual properties of protection and defendability.

If there is no place to turn to, animals tend to duck low and hold still. Some stick their heads into the ground3, to avoid seeing the danger they face. Some roll into a foetal position, if nothing else helps4.

Privacy is about a sense of security and the need to satisfy one of the most basic survival instincts we possess. You don’t need to have some dark secrets to be defensive about your privacy.

  1. Barring some people that really need help because they think I just described some sort of sexual fantasy. []
  2. Berkshire is the name for the pattern of his coat, coloured all over, but for the white belly. Chocolate is what deep brown coats are called. []
  3. Yes, I know it’s a myth. Who cares? []
  4. Of course, it all depends on their options, birds will try to seek high ground and open spaces. It’s all about fight or flight, or fight or hiding/flight, to be more precise. []