if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about
February 18, 2010 6:17 PM   Subscribe

what is the best counter-argument to the "if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about" line of thinking regarding surveillance (both covert and overt)?
posted by radiosilents to Law & Government (66 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
What if I'm doing things which are legal but embarrassing?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:19 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Just ask that person for their email password. Or what their salary is. Or whether they put personal letters in envelopes.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:20 PM on February 18, 2010 [8 favorites]


"Who gets to decide whether you're doing something 'wrong' or not?"
posted by contessa at 6:21 PM on February 18, 2010 [13 favorites]


Misbehaving or not, our behavior is shaped by the knowledge that we are being watched. Read Foucault on the panopticon.
posted by pickypicky at 6:22 PM on February 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


One argument is the basic right to privacy, as above.

Another is that everyone does something "wrong," is you look hard enough. Downloading music, driving 1mph over the speed limit. If you have it in for someone, you will get something eventually.

Another is that the definition of "wrong" can be changed and stretched by the authorities to get people they don't like. (See Red scare.) This is actually the best argument, I think. If there are no checks on the system of surveillance, than we have to 100% trust every person running the system, or with access to the information, to never misuse it. And we know how that tends to go,
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:26 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


pickypicky has it right. Even if we are doing nothing wrong, the observer is shaping our actions through observation. Nothing I do tonight will be illegal, but I guarantee I would behave differently if folks were staring through my window.

I like i_am_joe's_spleen answer more, though. A person professing that viewpoint should have no problem letting you regularly check over their email.
posted by Willie0248 at 6:26 PM on February 18, 2010


The most obvious wrongdoing-related reason is that you may be accused of doing something wrong even when you're not!

I think this reason is actually more important than actual wrongdoing (since most people aren't committing crimes most of the time).
posted by k. at 6:28 PM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, presumably the interlocutor would have no problem with the police installing surveillance cameras in every room of their house. You know, just to make sure no crime is going on. After all, if they're not doing anything wrong, then why would they worry about big brother knowing every detail about their personal lives?
posted by darkstar at 6:28 PM on February 18, 2010


The concern is not so much the people being watched as the people doing the watching. Given a power that can be abused somebody will.
posted by tallus at 6:28 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Put more succinctly:

The people doing the spying are always the same ones defining what "wrong" is.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:29 PM on February 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


When my father in law said something like that to me once, my response was that anything you say could conceivably be misconstrued or taken out of context to be used against you.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 6:29 PM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


What people, I think, most misunderstand when it comes to worrying about too much state power is the possibility of government Error. Someone in power might make a mistake, and having made that mistake being unwilling to do anything about it or admit their mistake.

If you think that's unlikely, just look at all the people who have been on death row and then released. You would think that the prosecution would be all over that, wanting to make sure the correct people were in jail and that they were actually guilty.

But that's not what happens at all. They fight to keep people who are in jail from even checking to see if their DNA matches up. Why would they do that? Because they don't want to admit their mistake.


So the biggest risk for someone who's not doing anything wrong would be a government error. You could, for example, show up on a security camera near where a crime takes place, and then end up charged with it because it's the only lead police have.

Another problem is the possibility of people in government holding personal grudges against you for whatever reason, and using the survelence technology to keep tabs on you.

I think the most famous example of someone in government with a grudge against someone would be Sarah Palin trying to get her ex-brother in law fired. Do you think that if Palin had her hands on some surveillance technology she would have used it on Trouper Wooten?

Even if we assume the federal government is competent, there's no reason to think that your local government is also competent.

---

So the question isn't whether you are doing anything wrong, but whether both yourself and everyone with access to the surveillance technology will never do anything wrong.
posted by delmoi at 6:31 PM on February 18, 2010 [14 favorites]


"If I'm not doing anything wrong, why do you want to watch me?" Put the burden of proof on that surveillance is useful on the other party. Start by arguing from the assumption that you're not doing anything wrong.
posted by fatbird at 6:31 PM on February 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


Previously.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:34 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


The panopticon may not be the best example, because it's supposed to encourage good behavior. Since you don't know when you're being watched, you're on company behavior all the time, right?

A better counter-argument is that many things which are entirely innocent can look (or be made to look!) suspicious when taken out of context. I remember seeing a video somewhere that pretended to show a terrorist attack---people discussing things in booths of loud bars, poring over blueprints, playing with chemistry sets in their garages, buying a UPS uniform, etc. It ended with one of them dressed up as a UPS man delivering a package, which by then I was totally convinced was a bomb. Then the director came on to explain that the video was spliced together from footage of four people going about their business for two weeks. One of them happened to be a UPS man who played D&D with a gun enthusiast.

I'll see if I can find the video.
posted by d. z. wang at 6:39 PM on February 18, 2010 [7 favorites]


To me it has always been that my concern is not with the things *I* am doing. My concern is with the things that *they* are doing, and what they are going to do with that information. It's not that I'm concerned with whether or not I am trustworthy, it's whether or not *they* are trustworthy.
posted by Ashley801 at 6:39 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Privacy is a societal good. Constant surveillance destroys that good.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:40 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


My favorite answer from the thread I linked to that asked the exact same question is: "Do you mind if I videotape you having sex with your wife?"

Actually, that's sexist. It should be: "Do you mind if I videotape you having sex with your [spouse or significant other]?"
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:44 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Them: If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about
You: Then excuse me while I look through your medicine cabinet.
posted by chrisamiller at 6:45 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Because watching itself can constitute wrongdoing.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:45 PM on February 18, 2010


In priority order:

1. People often don't actually believe things like this. Tell them to put live webcams wherever they have sex, or broadcast themselves saying final words to their dying spouse, and then get back to you.
2. People making positive assertions ("We should be able to watch you") need to prove those assertions first. You don't need to disprove them.
3. People behave differently -- specifically, they behave like they think other people want them to behave -- if they think they're being watched, whether they're being watched or not (see Foucault, Discipline and Punish).
4. People doing the watching are those in power. They define 'wrong', and 'wrong' is not some unchanging quantity. It is defined -- and its definition can be changed -- by those in power.
5. People in power tend to put preserving that power at the top of their priority list, whether they admit it or not (see Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses). Combined with 4, this means they will retroactively determine what's wrong when doing so helps them maintain power.
posted by amery at 6:49 PM on February 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


Simple answer - The lives of others... WATCH IT.

The level of government intrusion displayed there was based on 1980’s technology, RUSSIAN tech at that! Imagine what we can do today. And don’t think that being a law abiding citizen will save you. You have no idea how you might play into some petty mid-level intelligence officer’s, politician’s or bureaucrat’s agenda… as a pawn, an opponent, or perhaps just collateral damage.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 6:52 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Even if you trust the current government, why do you have faith that the government will never change, be overthrown or invaded? The Khmer Rouge came into power in Cambodia and exterminated not only certain minorities, but entire professions such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Today's surveillance and powerful public, private databases would make these witchhunts and genocides much easier.

Data security is also very vulnerable against sophisticated attacks from unauthorized sources. According to Google, their networks were recently attacked by Chinese government hackers in order to spy on civil rights groups' totally legal correspondence within the United States. Likewise, identity theft is made easier by repositories of personal data.

And, at the risk of Godwinning the conversation: Imagine you used your CVS card to buy some matza and your Albertson's card to buy a dreidel a few months before Hitler came into power...
posted by Skwirl at 6:54 PM on February 18, 2010


Would you consider someone pleading the 5th amendment to be therefore guilty?
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:56 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Most of these responses are the same argument, that the people doing the surveillance have the potential to misuse it. As one of the people who makes the "you shouldn't be doing anything wrong, anyway" argument, my answer would be that that's a problem with a corrupt government, and not with surveillance itself. Police observing you on the street and making a report can take what they see you doing out of context, laws and enforcement about what's right and wrong can change all the time, witnesses can be bought, etc. I'd think that surveillance, a recording, could protect me from that, especially in the digital age where things can be copied.

And no, I don't want "you" or "my friend" reading my e-mail; that argument is silly. My friend has an interest in anything private (but not illegal) in my e-mail, while, since I'm not doing anything illegal, my personal/embarrassing goings-on are of no interest to a government surveillance unit with more important things to worry about than my cross-dressing husband or strange fetishes.

And you know what, I probably wouldn't have an issue with the police having cameras set up all over my house, as long as I could be reasonably assured that they weren't corrupt perverts. But I'd want that assurance even without intense surveillance, since the police as it is have rights to invade my privacy anyway with "reasonable suspicion." What if the police at the station next door to my house decided to pop in and steal my TV? Well if I have no proof, it's their word against mine. If I have cameras installed, and there are checks and balances in place re: whose watching and who has access to the feed, I'm covered.

our behavior is shaped by the knowledge that we are being watched--Isn't that the idea?
posted by thebazilist at 6:57 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


On May 14, 1940, she was doing "nothing wrong" and thus by this argument, Anne had no reason to worry that she was listed as a Jew in Dutch public records. After the May 15th Dutch surrender, this putatively innocuous information would fall in Nazi hands, and eventually kill Anne Frank.
posted by orthogonality at 7:05 PM on February 18, 2010 [10 favorites]


I was recently talking about this very thing with a co-worker. He tells people, "Then give me your wallet so I can go through it. If you have nothing to hide, then it shouldn't be a problem."
posted by csimpkins at 7:09 PM on February 18, 2010


That line of reasoning assumes the function of privacy is to hide something. Privacy is a freedom, not a burglar's mask.
posted by Pragmatica at 7:15 PM on February 18, 2010 [8 favorites]


thebazilist - if the OP's had asked "why shouldn't you walk off a tall building" your response was analogous to: "there's nothing wrong with walking off of tall buildings, I'd do it myself and it wouldn't bother me. But it's that sudden stop you need to look out for. If I could be reasonably assured that the ground wouldn't suddenly stop me, I'd totally do it."

What I mean to say is, ubiquitous surveillance (government or corporate) in this way entails corruption, plain and simple. The more people watching, the more oversight required to keep watching the watchers, the more chance one of the watchers, or watchers of the watchers is corrupt. But even more likely, in a government scenario, is that the head of the government will realize they have total control, and turn the surveillance system into the backbone of the most oppressive police state enforcement structure ever (See 1984).

And you still haven't addressed... what do you get for watching everyone? Not much, and you risk plenty.


I probably wouldn't have an issue with the police having cameras set up all over my house, as long as I could be reasonably assured that they weren't corrupt perverts.


HAH! There is no government, present, past or fictional, you can name that would be capable of giving that assurance. If you could, that government, and that society would already be full of enlightened nonviolent unicorns and surveillance (and laws for that matter) would be irrelevant.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 7:15 PM on February 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


No no no. This starts from the wrong premise. The American government was founded on the principle of limited powers. The people have infinite rights. The government only has those rights which the people explicitly allow it to have. The question isn't whether you can prove that the government shouldn't do something, the question is 1) does the government have the right to do this in the first place and, 2) if not, can the government justify its intrusion on the rights of the people via some important governmental interest, while also establishing that it cannot accomplish the same purpose through less intrusive means?
posted by prefpara at 7:17 PM on February 18, 2010 [7 favorites]


Also, privacy protects dignity. I just picked my nose. Thank god nobody saw me do it. It was gross. The government needs a better reason to watch me pick my nose than "well you won't go to jail."

If someone argues for constant surveillance, just nod and then follow them around. Back to their desk. When they get up to go to the bathroom, follow them there too. Stay a few feet away and just watch. If they ask what you're doing, say, don't worry - you're not breaking any laws. And just keep watching everything they do and reading over their shoulder.
posted by prefpara at 7:20 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


"We do nothing wrong when we make love or go to the bathroom. We are not deliberately hiding anything when we seek out private places for reflection or conversation. We keep private journals, sing in the privacy of the shower, and write letters to secret lovers and then burn them. Privacy is a basic human need."

- Bruce Schneier, 2006
posted by mhoye at 7:21 PM on February 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


that's a problem with a corrupt government, and not with surveillance itself.

Two non-rhetorical questions:

Has there ever, in human history, existed a government which you would claim to be sufficiently free of corruption that none of its law enforcers could of misuse access to private information about someone else?

If a particular government was founded on respect for certain human rights, including a right to freedom from unwarranted searches, wouldn't unpunished violations of that right be ipso facto proof of corruption?
posted by roystgnr at 7:30 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


our behavior is shaped by the knowledge that we are being watched--Isn't that the idea?

This was an eye-opening comment. Thank you for adding it to this discussion. I had not previously understood that people who argue this position are actually arguing that surveillance is good because it will change people's private behaviour. The position makes a lot more sense now.

I am still just as displeased with the idea, for what it's worth.
posted by odinsdream at 7:32 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Then by orthogonality's reasoning, there should be absolutely no records at all. There are government-accessible records that say I'm Jewish, but I'm reasonably confident that those records won't lead me into harm in the way that they would have in Nazi Europe. They could, but that's a risk I take living in a society that keeps records.

I agree that our government does not have unlimited rights to surveillance.

Outside of that, however, I haven't ever heard any reasons that "government surveillance" as a concept is wrong. I don't think cameras on street corners or keeping tabs on my library check-outs means that I don't have privacy. I guess my sense of "privacy" is different than others, and luckily for those other people, our constitution supports their sense. But I don't really care if some government peon thinks I'm gross for picking my nose--I think I'd assume that they wouldn't even care enough about the minutiae of my life to even notice my nose-picking.
posted by thebazilist at 7:33 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Okay I guess I should clarify that I'm arguing that I don't see government surveillance as an invasion of privacy in the abstract, let's-argue sense. Our country's founding principles regarding surveillance should be upheld. I don't support the Patriot Act. Etc.

Just like I can think that communal living as an idea sounds nice while not actually wanting to live in a communist country since it usually ends badly IRL.
posted by thebazilist at 7:41 PM on February 18, 2010


"Abuse of power should come as no surprise."
posted by mjb at 7:43 PM on February 18, 2010


I think the Anne Frank point is being read ungenerously. The broad argument being made there is that we can't predict how information collected by the government will be used. Therefore, we shouldn't select some bits of information and say not those and have to justify that. Rather, the government should have to justify every piece of information that it wants to collect from us by relating it to an existing and important governmental purpose.
posted by prefpara at 7:44 PM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


My response would be "Even if I'm not doing anything wrong, it still ain't none of your business."
posted by spilon at 7:47 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


"It's not wrong for me to cover myself in jelly in the bath and try to sing 'Pop Goes The Weasel' like a castrato but damned if I want it up on YouTube."
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:02 PM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


When is the last time you heard of a government that wasn't corrupt?

Even if you think the government, in general, isn't corrupt, what about all the individuals in the government who have access? Do you think none of them are corrupt or have personal agendas?
posted by alms at 8:04 PM on February 18, 2010


"Do you have curtains on your windows?"
and as the Romans said, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"
posted by fings at 8:09 PM on February 18, 2010


There are different meanings of "wrong". What about activities that are unpopular but legal? If you get off by masturbating into omelets while your partner spanks you with a spatula, you probably don't want everyone knowing about it. It might cost you relationships, friendships, maybe even your job.

When you engage in unpopular or unusual acts, you are committing one kind of wrong, in that you're violating social norms. But is that the kind of wrong that we want to be forced to face the consequences for? Because that's what's going to happen if your kitchen fetish becomes public knowledge.
posted by shaun uh at 8:39 PM on February 18, 2010


re: public knowledge, I misread the question (I think I conflated it with this FPP), but even if your privacy is only being invaded by select individuals who, presumably, are under strict orders only to act on actively illegal behavior, you still have to trust that they'll keep the information to themselves, an assumption that others rightly call into question above.
posted by shaun uh at 8:42 PM on February 18, 2010


I was recently talking about this very thing with a co-worker. He tells people, "Then give me your wallet so I can go through it. If you have nothing to hide, then it shouldn't be a problem."

I came in to say this. I read it originally from Bruce Schneier, I believe.

Anyway, it works really well. And the looks you get with it are priceless.
posted by Netzapper at 8:45 PM on February 18, 2010


When anyone tells me that if I'm doing nothing wrong I should have nothing to hide, I ask them what their salary is, if they have a family history of breast cancer and if they've ever cheated on their partner.

Also, just because it's (even currently) illegal doesn't mean it's "wrong".
posted by m1ndsurfer at 8:50 PM on February 18, 2010


I've told this story before, but friends of mine who, along with their toddler son, were the victims of a terrible crime (arson, attempted murder) learned too late that the police in their town had decided that one of them had set the fire. Conversations they had when they thought they were in private were monitored; conversations they had with police and firefighters when they thought they were being treated as witnesses and victims were used against them. In the end, the police told the newspapers that they believed my friend had committed the crime but didn't have enough evidence to prosecute.

In other words: even if you've done nothing wrong, you have things to fear from: surveillance you don't know about; the deliberate twisting of your words; prejudiced and incompetent officials of various kinds.
posted by not that girl at 9:31 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


You have the right to be treated as innocent until your are proven guilty. It is not up to you to have to establish innocence - but rather, up to the legal authorities to prove you are not.

Otherwise you are innocent, like a newborn child. Anyone who asks you to behave as "if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about" - is saying you're guilty.

So, in essence, since you are the paragon of honesty, until proven otherwise they should just assume you are innocent and not waste their time making such obviously rude assumptions.
posted by filmgeek at 10:04 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


But I don't really care if some government peon thinks I'm gross for picking my nose
I recently moved to Washington, DC and I have been dating. Of the women that I've dated or befriended recently, one works for the Department of Justice, one works for an Inspector General's office and one works for the Government Accountability Office. Just because your circle of friends doesn't include "government peons" doesn't mean the rest of us want random people to know we pick our noses.

More importantly, like the majority of modern people, I have an active imagination and a little social anxiety and the MERE IDEA that a potential friend or significant other that I might meet in the future could be the person on the other side of the telescreen will alter my behavior and make me feel less free to pick my nose. I might also feel less free to own firearms, less free to create provocative literature, less free to assemble and associate with unpopular people, etc...
posted by Skwirl at 10:18 PM on February 18, 2010


I really like Daniel Solove's paper on this question, "I've Got Nothing to Hide" and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy. In it, he cites the kind of response most people here have given as common and effective in the extreme case, but also notes that the flip responses such as "well then, let me read your email" don't work for stronger, subtler versions of the "nothing to hide" argument.

The gist of the paper is that the easy answers already concede too much; they admit a very narrow definition of privacy. Namely, that privacy is the right of seclusion. Instead, he advances a broader conception of privacy (from his longer Taxonomy of Privacy) and identifies societal goods from privacy.

Everything the previous commenters have said is also good, especially Bruce Schneier's quote.

tl;dr: Good paper about with a strong, meta critique of the question you raise.
posted by heliostatic at 11:39 PM on February 18, 2010 [11 favorites]


Ask a lawyer if they know every single law that applies to them-self at any given time. Yeah I thought not. Given that many laws seem to be designed to grant police the power to do want they want...

I would seriously doubt that there would be many days of footage where we would not be breaking some kind of law, or could be argued in the court of law that we were. Not to mention any future laws that could potentially apply retroactively... It would be interesting to film someone 24x7 and then ask the best lawyers to tear him or her apart.
posted by Submiqent at 12:43 AM on February 19, 2010


And you know what, I probably wouldn't have an issue with the police having cameras set up all over my house, as long as I could be reasonably assured that they weren't corrupt perverts. But I'd want that assurance even without intense surveillance, since the police as it is have rights to invade my privacy anyway with "reasonable suspicion."

I think people have different interpretations of "if you have nothing to hide..." depending on the details of the surveillance proposed.

A hypothetical system of video surveillance could exist (perhaps with the videos were encrypted before anyone saw them, and could only be decrypted with a court order) that was functionally no different from there being no surveillance.

Likewise, a hypothetical surveillance system could exist (with insufficient legal and technical safeguards) which was abused by politicians to spy on their political rivals, by businessmen to under-bid their competitors, by bored cops to watch hot lesbians having sex, and by my nosy government clerk mother to learn more about my girlfriend.

Unless the person asking "if you have nothing to hide..." specifies the details of the system and its privacy protections, people will make their own assumptions - and privacy advocates will assume it will be the latter system. They will assume this because of Watergate, journalists' claims about ECHELON, and so on; unless you specify there will be additional privacy protections, people will assume current abuses will continue unchecked.

You could persuade me that ubiquitous surveillance would not cause problems - but you would first have to convince me that there would be effective technical and legal safeguards in place to prevent abuse. Few surveillance advocates address this, and none that I've seen have done it convincingly.

Even if I personally am not planning a political campaign, I'm in favour of privacy because (as a voter in a democracy) I benefit from assuring privacy for the people who are planning political campaigns.


I don't really care if some government peon thinks I'm gross for picking my nose--I think I'd assume that they wouldn't even care enough about the minutiae of my life to even notice my nose-picking.

I don't think this is a very good argument. "It's not interesting" might reassure you that no-one would care to observe you picking your nose, but when I have wild, athletic sex with my sexy beautiful partner, it's interesting enough that "it's not interesting" would not reassure me if there was a camera in my bedroom.


And you still haven't addressed... what do you get for watching everyone? Not much, and you risk plenty.

Hypothetically: 100% detection and punishment of crime, making all criminal enterprises unprofitable and hence eliminating all wrongdoing?

No more "I don't know who raped me, he had a mask on" or "yes we had sex but it was consensual" - just check the video of the event, follow him back to his home on the cameras and drop by to arrest him.
posted by Mike1024 at 1:09 AM on February 19, 2010


I always respond with: "So you're totally happy having a surveillance camera installed in your bedroom then? After all, if you're not doing anything wrong..."
posted by mr_silver at 5:58 AM on February 19, 2010


Hypothetically: 100% detection and punishment of crime, making all criminal enterprises unprofitable and hence eliminating all wrongdoing?

No more "I don't know who raped me, he had a mask on" or "yes we had sex but it was consensual" - just check the video of the event, follow him back to his home on the cameras and drop by to arrest him.


No. It would only stop people getting away with breaking the law.

Crimes would still be committed (crimes of passion etc.) and many crimes would not be something I consider wrong. Smoking pot, reading an al Qaeda manual, smashing the nosecone of a military aircraft, for starters.
posted by knapah at 7:43 AM on February 19, 2010


thebazilist: And you know what, I probably wouldn't have an issue with the police having cameras set up all over my house, as long as I could be reasonably assured that they weren't corrupt perverts.

The Guardian: Just who are these people, these swelling legions of unelected, ill-qualified monitors who wield such extraordinary power in our surveillance society? Clarification in one case came last year, when the civilian in charge of a Worcester police station's surveillance team was suspended after detectives found, among one day's footage, a 20-minute sequence of close-ups of a woman's cleavage and backside as she walked oblivious through the streets. Whether the woman ever discovered she was the star of a kind of pervert Truman Show is not recorded. But the offending monitor escaped with a warning and was - unbelievably - back in post within weeks.
posted by adamrice at 8:11 AM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


You know? Everyone is guilty of something. Big or small. MLK Jr. was one of the greatest men in the 20th century but he was guilty of plagiarism, we are all flawed beings, every single one of us. And in a egalitarian society with omnipresent surveillance every single one of us would by necessity end up in the court system. From a sheer dispassionate economic standpoint that is absurd.
posted by edgeways at 8:52 AM on February 19, 2010


One reason I didn't see mentioned above is that by protecting your own privacy when you have nothing to hide, you are supporting the hiders by not making them stand out. That is, if acts of hiding were routine rather than extraordinary, hiding itself becomes nothing special, but if, instead, hiding becomes rare, the very act becomes suspicious--evidence of a crime in and of itself.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:10 AM on February 19, 2010


No. It would only stop people getting away with breaking the law.

Crimes would still be committed (crimes of passion etc.)


Good point - I agree that crimes of passion may still be committed.

and many crimes would not be something I consider wrong. Smoking pot, reading an al Qaeda manual, smashing the nosecone of a military aircraft, for starters.

Isn't that a different issue, though? I mean, if we have unjust laws we should change the laws, rather than creating a mechanism to let people get away with breaking the law.

Going back to "if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about" IMHO saying "but what if I'm smashing the nosecone of a military aircraft?" isn't the most compelling argument.
posted by Mike1024 at 11:51 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Isn't that a different issue, though? I mean, if we have unjust laws we should change the laws, rather than creating a mechanism to let people get away with breaking the law.

Going back to "if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about" IMHO saying "but what if I'm smashing the nosecone of a military aircraft?" isn't the most compelling argument.


I don't believe that just because something is against the law I should never do it. There is a major political/philosophical discussion to be had here, but I suspect this isn't the place for it.

The nosecone argument was slightly facetious, but the pot smoking certainly wasn't. I also think you understate the effort required to change laws I/We/Some think unjust.
posted by knapah at 11:56 AM on February 19, 2010


What is the best counter-argument to the "if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about" line of thinking regarding surveillance (both covert and overt)?

How about this: If the American government develops ubiquitous surveillance (a) America could hardly complain when China deployed an identical system and (b) American taxpayers' money and technical expertise would have gone into making such a system possible.

That would make things pretty hard for human rights/pro-democracy campaigners, right?

What good is a human right if, when that right is ignored, an omniscient state can prevent you from complaining about it in the privacy of your own bathroom? All human rights are descended from privacy, and hence any declaration of human rights which does not include privacy is meaningless.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:20 PM on February 19, 2010


"If you give me six lines written by the most honest man, I will find something in them to hang him." --Cardinal Richelieu
posted by kimota at 12:21 PM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


The problem with your question is that sometimes "if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about" is a perfectly reasonable thing to say. Surveillance is a broad topic. For example, cops have argued against being forced to keep videos running during arrests or interrogations, and one possible argument against them is the line in question.

And what constitutes "surveillance"? Is a speed trap surveillance? A sobriety checkpoint? Drug testing? What about for medical professionals or pilots? At some point, these have been argued against as abuses of government power, and the "nothing to hide..." line applies to all of them.

Another example:
You're discussing England's use of webcams on street corners to monitor behavior, and someone says, "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." The "Why don't you let me film you having sex with your wife?" line is a dumb response because presumably you don't have sex with your wife in public.

In short, there is no single line to refute it; it depends on the context.
posted by coolguymichael at 1:40 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


did the British think George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were doing something wrong?
posted by at at 2:35 PM on February 19, 2010


I'm just gonna hit this one more time... If I had been the one to put forth this argument, none of these counter-arguments would have fazed me.

First, is this argument about surveillance now, in this country, or in the abstract? Are we arguing whether the US has the right to or should, right now, institute phone-taps and other unannounced and unchecked methods of surveillance? My answer would be absolutely not, since it's against our laws and since our government and the people operating within it would not be capable of conducting surveillance in a just and seemly manner, and since I haven't seen any technological checks to ensure that rights are protected and recordings are tamper-proof.

However, if we are arguing about the whether surveillance and privacy are mutually-exclusive, then I think personal notions of privacy come into it. I don't have the "social anxiety" to care whether someone I don't know sees me picking my nose. I don't even really care if someone I don't know has access to a sex tape, if I were confident that that evidence wouldn't be misused (yes I know in the world we live in, it would be).

Then we can throw into the discussion whether we're talking about surveillance in public or private, whether there is a good agreed-upon reason for the surveillance, whether everyone will know beforehand when and where they're being watched, whether there will be appropriate barriers to tampering, and so on and so forth. These are all germane to the subject -- they create the definitions of "privacy" and "surveillance" about which we are arguing.

And as to all the things that are "wrong" but not illegal: cheating isn't illegal, but Homeland Security or whatever hypothetical body has better things to do than notify your wife. And you know, don't cheat anyway. And for the things that are illegal but shouldn't be: maybe if everyone smoking pot knew that they'd be watched, they'd all get off their stoned behinds and get a movement together to change the law.
posted by thebazilist at 3:24 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Listen, this isn't a hypothetical question. There have actually been societies that went to great lengths to strip privacy from their citizens. Without even digging deep it should concern us that these have nearly all been totalitarian societies. The citizens spied on did not report being comfortable with the near-total surveillance.

I would be absolutely shocked if any of the people posting declarations about how little they care about someone watching them have ever lived in such a society or been closely observed for a long period of time.
posted by prefpara at 3:42 PM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Then we can throw into the discussion whether we're talking about surveillance in public or private, whether there is a good agreed-upon reason for the surveillance, whether everyone will know beforehand when and where they're being watched, whether there will be appropriate barriers to tampering, and so on and so forth. These are all germane to the subject -- they create the definitions of "privacy" and "surveillance" about which we are arguing.

That sounds a whole lot more complicated than if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about to me.

I mean, "just and seemly manner" and "technological checks" and "rights are protected" and "recordings are tamper-proof" "public and private" and "a good agreed-upon reason" and "everyone will know beforehand" and "appropriate barriers to tampering" sound like you have a whole bunch of stuff to worry about.

I think that, even if you're not doing anything wrong, you would have those things to worry about.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:42 PM on February 21, 2010


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