In 2014, on holiday in Cornwall with my wife’s family, we were talking about CCTV and the government scanning emails. And I remember my wife’s brother-in-law saying “if you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear”. At the time I didn’t know what to say. It felt like if I disagreed with that statement I was saying I had something to hide.
Recently I have been thinking about that statement a lot. According to this article written by Daniel J. Solove on thechronicle.com in 2011 ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear’ was once the official slogan used by the British government in a campaign to promote mass surveillance. Now, I couldn’t find any evidence of this, and it might be true but just from 50 years ago. But however the argument got into popular consciousness, I think it has become a kind of justification for submitting to mass surveillance and mass monitoring.
We live in a post-Snowden era, meaning it is now known that the NSA is scanning the electronic communication of American citizens. And, to be honest, I was surprised when President Obama came out in support of this NSA program. I guess I had hoped he would come out and say something along the lines of “no, this is too far-reaching, we need to take another look at this”. His support to me implies there are scary things that are prevented from happening because of the work the NSA does.
Thinking about this reminds me of a conversation I once had with an ex-girlfriend. She was a doctor and this was when I was living in New Zealand. And a big issue at the time was whether there should be a law preventing parents from physically disciplining their children, the issue particularly centring on smacking and the concern some parents were hitting their kids too hard when they were disciplining them. She said to me that even though some parents were capable of restricting their physical discipline to a light tap, some parents were not, and the right thing for the responsible parents to do was to give up some of their freedom to protect the children of parents who were poor at physical discipline.
I think the issues of mass surveillance and mass monitoring are also about the exchange of freedoms for other perceived needs. I think this is what David Foster Wallace was getting at in his essay ‘Just Asking‘ for The Atlantic. I do think there are costs to freedom and I think we should be having a conversation about what we are willing to give up. But I don’t think we are, partly because it is a complicated topic. But I think it is important because I think the quote ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is true, and what concerns me about mass surveillance and mass monitoring is I can only see power becoming concentrated.
If we are going to try to get people thinking & talking about freedom in the context of mass surveillance and mass monitoring, I personally think privacy is a good place to start because most people can relate to this (The Open Rights Group has a good blog post that touches on the importance of privacy). 2016 was the first year I have seen articles online that have warned people against clicking on links contained within the article in case your employer or the government is monitoring your internet connection. In one example an article was linking to a white nationalist website that was supporting Donald Trump. Is that the world we want to live in? Where we have to trust that whatever artificial intelligence is reviewing our internet traffic will be advanced enough to know whether we agree or disagree with every worldview we read online? Or is privacy sufficiently important enough to freedom to keep intact?