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Privacy: “I have nothing to hide”

We often hear the argument that it is okay for the government to gather or analyze personal information because only those who have something to hide need worry. As the British government slogan says, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.”

Libraries take a different approach to privacy. As the American Library Association says, “Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association.”

Yet we continue to hear the “nothing to hide” argument. Daniel J. Solove, a professor of law at George Washington University, examines the argument in detail and exposes its flaws in an excerpt from his new book, Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security:

  • Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’, by Daniel J. Solove, Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Chronicle Review” (May 15, 2011) [subscription required]

    Commentators often attempt to refute the nothing-to-hide argument by pointing to things people want to hide. But the problem with the nothing-to-hide argument is the underlying assumption that privacy is about hiding bad things. By accepting this assumption, we concede far too much ground and invite an unproductive discussion about information that people would very likely want to hide. As the computer-security specialist [Bruce] Schneier aptly notes, the nothing-to-hide argument stems from a faulty “premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong.” Surveillance, for example, can inhibit such lawful activities as free speech, free association, and other First Amendment rights essential for democracy.

Chapter 1 of the book is also freely available:

Solove argues that, in many cases, privacy issues never get balanced against conflicting interests. Bruce Schneier, the security expert Solove quotes above and the author of the excellent monthly newsletter, Crypto-Gram, makes a similar argument in a recent presentation on security issues:

As we have mentioned here before, (see, for example, Will GPO guarantee user privacy? Can it? and PRIVACY: Key Challenges Facing Federal Agencies and “Policy neutral” does not mean “neutral policies”), privacy has important policy implications for individual FDLP libraries and their approaches to access to government information. What is your library policy? Will your library choose to retain its role as a protector of privacy, or will it abandon that role to government agencies?

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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