Law in the Internet Society

"I Have Nothing to Hide."

-- By AlexXinruiLi - 02 Dec 2019

During Thanksgiving weekend, I went shopping with my friends to get Christmas gifts for their families. The shopping trip quickly became a short debate about internet privacy when I realized that two of them were looking to purchase a professional speaker with built-in google home system. The debate ended with their “I have nothing to hide” argument. This argument sounded right at first glance. True, if someone does no harm to the society, why should they care about privacy? After all, for most people, lack of privacy today simply means getting some targeted advertisements. As they claimed, why give up the convenience of being able to turn on your heater remotely so you can come home in the Winter to a warm apartment? But something about this argument seemed wrong.

As it turns out, the “I have nothing to hide” argument was more prevalent than I thought. This is a classic argument used by governments and big internet corporations. I suspect that I will encounter more situations in the future where I have to explain why privacy matters even if there is nothing to hide. Therefore, I want to dedicate this essay to help myself and others like me lay out the reasons quickly and effectively at your Christmas dinner table.

Privacy v. Secrecy

First, there is a fundamental difference between privacy and secrecy. In class, Professor Moglen discussed that the concept of "privacy" is actually composed of three distinct components: secrecy, anonymity, and autonomy, in which secrecy is our desire to keep the content data of our communications to ourselves. Your average John Smith does not need to be plotting a crime to need privacy. Whether or not you are a law-abiding citizen, you always put locks on your doors and close the curtains behind your windows. You may or may not enjoy recording tapes of your sexual intercourse, but chances are you would never want to publish them for the world to see. American journalist Glenn Greenwald, whose team published reports based on Edward Snowden’s findings on NSA mass surveillance, did a little social experiment to explain this difference. He had asked people to email him all their email and social media passwords, and said that he would look through them and publish whatever that’s interesting. Not surprisingly, no one has yet to take on this offer. Why is it that we claim we have nothing to hide yet we still don’t want to let a stranger on the street scroll through our text messages? This is because we do value privacy, a right that allows us to share different levels of personal information with different people around us. We felt comfortable being vulnerable in front of the people that love and care about us, but the next morning we still “suit up” to face the scary outside world. Yet why are we willing to let more strangers we’ve never met get access to so much of our personal information.

Who's Listening?

Second, we don’t know who is listening to us. Most people think it’s okay that social media and our technology devices are listening to us because we felt like there is not a particular person listening. But what if I put a face to this “person?” Do you want creepy Joe to spy on every move you make at home? Probably not. In reality, there could just be a real person listening to what happens at your house. Google, for example, records and uploads your conversations to be listened to and analyzed by their claimed “language experts.” Moreover, while companies claim that these smart speakers don’t record you unless they hear the “wake word,” this is simply not true. A group of researchers at Northwestern tested an Amazon Echo device by playing an audio book. In a span of 21 hours, the device recorded the audio book 63 times even without hearing the wake word. Buying a smart speaker home is basically the same as voluntarily installing a bug at your house that you also happily paid for. Moreover, it’s not just the large internet companies who are listening to you. You might “trust” Google, Amazon and Facebook but they can easily sell your data to others. More frightening, allowing home devices like smart speakers and security cameras and using apps that track your location could expose yourself to criminals of cybercrimes.

Slippery Slope

Third, agreeing to mass surveillance today might be a slippery slope for the future. One might argue that today it’s just the government who listens to us to “protect” our security and the big internet companies who listens to us to gain financial benefit from targeted ads. However, in reality, they have already been using our personal data to manipulate our decisions in the democratic process (The Great Hack). Moreover, in future, the governments and the big internet companies can further engage in internet censorship, and even move us into a “totally monitored world.” But what’s wrong with a totally monitored world if you are not a criminal? Glenn Greenwald says internet mass surveillance creates a “prison of the mind.” This is similar to Bentham and Foucault's concept of building a Panopticon in the prison, where the prisoners can be monitored from the tower in the center, but they can’t see when and who is monitoring them. As a result, the prisoners would have to behave as if there are people monitoring them the entire time. But in a society where mass surveillance is implemented, we will be these “prisoners.”

Lastly, I will end with a quote from Edward Snowden: "Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say." He argues that right to privacy should be valued the same as all other rights fundamental to the human race. In class, we discussed how consent to waiving your individual right to privacy has no legitimate role in the analysis of privacy, because every time privacy is invaded, more than one human being is affected. This is because violation of privacy always involves third parties and externalities. Similarly, Snowden believes that one cannot "give away the rights of others" simply because that right does not appear to be useful for him/her. So whether or not you feel like you have something to hide at this moment, we should put our legitimate right to internet privacy close and dear to our hearts.

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r5 - 23 Jan 2020 - 15:48:05 - AlexXinruiLi
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