Solove (2011). Why privacy matters even if you have “nothing to hide.”

Solove, D. J. (2011). Why privacy matters even if you have “nothing to hide.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 15.

[Author’s poll of responses to the “nothing-to-hide” argument …]

  • “Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.
  • “It’s not about having anything to hide, it’s about things not being anyone else’s business.”

“… in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novella ‘Traps,’ which involves a seemingly innocent man put on trial by a group of retired lawyers in a mock-trial game, the man inquires what his crime shall be. ‘An altogether minor matter,’ replies the prosecutor. ‘A crime can always be found.'”

“Another metaphor better captures the problems: Franz Kafka’s _The Trial_. Kafka’s novel centers around a man who is arrested but not informed why. He desperately tries to find out what triggered his arrest and what’s in store for him. He finds out that a mysterious court system has a dossier on him and is investigating him, but he’s unable to learn much more. The Trial depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people’s information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used.”

“… the power relationships between people and the institutions of the modern state. … frustrate the individual by creating a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, but also affect social structure by altering the kind of relationships people have with the institutions that make important decisions about their lives.”

“… the problem with the nothing-to-hide argument is the underlying assumption that privacy is about hiding bad things.”

“In _The Trial_, the problem is not inhibited behavior but rather a suffocating powerlessness and vulnerability created by the court system’s use of personal data and its denial to the protagonist of any knowledge of or participation in the process. The harms are bureaucratic ones—indifference, error, abuse, frustration, and lack of transparency and accountability.”

[Author lists types of harm …]

“… aggregation … exclusion … secondary use … distortion …”

“Privacy is often threatened not by a single egregious act but by the slow accretion of a series of relatively minor acts. In this respect, privacy problems resemble certain environmental harms, which occur over time through a series of small acts by different actors. Although society is more likely to respond to a major oil spill, gradual pollution by a multitude of actors often creates worse problems.”

“… the nothing-to-hide argument can ensnare, for it forces the debate to focus on its narrow understanding of privacy.”


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