27th dimension of the Internet

Nothing to hide

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Multinational corporations basing their economic model on targeted advertising are collecting more data than ever on their users. At the same time, several democratic states try to pass laws to support Intelligence services, and to set up mechanisms in order to watch over digital communications of their citizens, their main argument being the need to “fight against terrorism”.

No to mass surveillance!—French campaign against bill on Intelligence https://sous-surveillance.fr (La Quadrature Du Net)
“No to mass surveillance!”—French campaign against bill on Intelligence
https://sous-surveillance.fr (La Quadrature Du Net)

Of course, this raises multiple privacy issues; but many people do not fully realize how important it is. All too often, when questioned about such concerns, they answer that surveillance cannot be so harmful to them, since “they have nothing to hide”.

This argument has been contested many times, and I don’t have specific new ideas to bring to this debate. But I noticed that even though one can find a lot of articles in the Internet explaining why we do have something to hide, not all of them use the same counter-arguments; and nearly none of them attempted to list all those counter-arguments in a single article. This is a task I have tried to realize lately to expand the French version of Wikipedia’s article Nothing to hide in its French version (the article is also available in English, but I haven’t worked on that one).

This was my personal contribution to the debate, with the help that it might help readers to answer to this all-too-common argument (context: at the time of this writing, French government is about to promulgate a law forcing ISPs to set up black boxes to enable mass surveillance of the citizens, and allowing Intelligence services to spy on people without the prior approval of a judge—amongst other joyful things).

So here is a translation of the list I could establish about arguments in opposition to the “nothing to hide” concept. They are organized in three main points, and some minor additional arguments are added into a fourth section:

  1. Importance of private life for us, humans
  2. Protecting other people (and rhinos!)
  3. Collected data can be used to make evil
  4. Miscellaneous additional arguments

Note that this mainly, but not entirely my own work, since some text was on Wikipedia prior to my editing, and some bits were taken from the English version of the article. Also, note that most references are in French. And finally, don’t forget I’m quoting external references: I have not read all books listed on this page myself. At least, not yet ☺.

1 Private life is important

1.1 Instinctive need for privacy

Emilio Mordini, philosopher and psychoanalyst, argued that the “nothing to hide” argument is paradoxical. People do not need to have “something to hide” in order to hide “something”. What is relevant is not what is hidden, rather the experience that there is a intimate area, which could be hidden, whose access could be restricted. Psychologically speaking, we become individuals through the discovery that we could hide something to others (Mordini 2008).

Jean-Marc Manach, journalist on new technologies and privacy issues, explains that this is why we would not accept to put CCTV cameras inside bedrooms (Manach 2009a). We would not accept either to equip all children with cameras in order to fight against pedophilia, even if it could be a very efficient way to detect sexual aggressions. On the same topic, Adam D. Moore provides another example (Moore 2010):

Imagine upon exiting your house one day you find a person searching through your trash painstakingly putting the shredded notes and documents back together. In response to your stunned silence he proclaims «You don’t have anything to worry about—there is no reason to hide is there?»

On the same basis, many bloggers supporting rights to privacy directly ask their readers for their web passwords: since they have nothing to hide, surely they wouldn’t mind people reading their accounts data?

1.2 Hiding to protect oneself

Moore adds that some individuals may wish to hide embarrassing behavior or conduct not accepted by the dominant culture. As an example, he invites to consider medical or sexual historic of people, or “alternative” modes of life not accepted by the majority, and that some people may prefer to hide. In this perspective, the ability to dissimulate elements can change one’s life.

1.3 The perilous art of crossing data

Furthermore, people pretending they have “nothing to hide” do not always realize to what extent crossing data makes it possible to deduce information upon their situation. Social networks, web search engines, banks, hypermarkets (via fidelity programs for instance) may dispose of enough data to tell a lot about individuals: some of those companies have been known for their ability to guess:

  • in what emotional state a person is;
  • to detect when he or she starts a romantic relationship (Vion-Dury 2014);
  • sexual orientation of this person (Nitot 2015b);
  • information about their lifestyle in regard to health promotion;
  • etc.

1.4 Influencing individuals’ behaviors

In many cases, people knowing that they are under surveillance tend to have their behavior altered, and to self-censor their actions (Nitot 2015a). This is what Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon is based on: he imagined a prison where all prisoners would be constantly watched over. This principle was later reused and extended by Michel Foucault, and summarized after that by Gilles Deleuze as follows:

The abstract formulae of panopticism is not anymore «to watch without being watched», but «to impose a random behavior to a random set of humans»

This goes in the same direction as the novel 1984 by Georges Orwell, stating that what is the most dangerous in such situations is not to be all the time under surveillance, but to know that we are susceptible to be at any time, since there is absolutely no way to verify whether this is the case at a given instant. By extension, setting up mass surveillance to collect data about all society may end up with modifying the whole society’s behavior!

2 Protecting me, protecting you

2.1 Collateral damages

So far we have been listing why any individual should be wanting to preserve a “hidden” side of their lives. Nevertheless, one might as well discard these arguments and claim they do not care. Well, actually privacy is not only about protecting oneself. Protecting my privacy comes down to protect the one of people around me. “People around me” is to be understood both in affective and geographical meanings. I may consider that I do not mind disclosing my private data; but as soon as these data involves someone else, giving it away comes down to give away this other person’s private data. And I can never be sure that what seems anodyne to me feels the same for someone else. Each time I write an email to a friend, is he or she OK for me to make their answer public?

Laurent Chemla, founder of Gandi.net and activist in favor of privacy, states than protecting one’s private life is essential to preserve their relatives’ privacy, or even privacy of individuals we do not know but with whom we merely cross path. For an example, this is the case with innocent holiday pictures shot close to a “person of interest”. The GPS system of the camera could then be used to localize and to survey the person recognized in the background of the photography, even if the photograph does not have any relationship with that person. Chemla explains that this reasoning is also valid in the case of tourists taking pictures of rhinos: poachers are really fond of such pictures, since they may help them to track down the beasts (Chemla 2015).

2.2 Agencies spinning a web

Relationships have something else to do with surveillance. When an individual is specifically targeted, Intelligence services will also collect data on this person’s relatives. In many cases this web will be extended up to two or three degrees: if I am the target, my relatives, all their relatives, plus all of their own relatives may be spied upon. This makes a lot of people! Many tend to think that because they have “nothing to hide”, they do not represent a legitimate interest for Intelligence and thus, they will not be targeted by the NSA or any local counterpart. Now, how sure are you than there is no one “of interest” among the relatives of all people close to your own relatives?

So there are two points here: anyone might be targeted because of the acting of their relatives (or the relatives of their relatives…); and anyone getting specifically targeted (as a “primary” target) can lead to surveillance of all people he or she loves. Be careful with your private life, if not for yourself, for the people around you.

3 Where are my data going?

3.1 Unjustified use or disclosure of personal data

Professor of Law Daniel J. Solove stated that a government (and by extension, any corporation collecting data) can leak information about a person and cause damage to that person, or use information about a person to deny access to services even if a person did not actually engage in wrongdoing (Solove 2011). A government can also cause damage to one’s personal life through making errors. Indeed, unintentional disclosure (Dricot 2011) or malicious access to private data cannot be excluded.

3.2 Collecting data to make evil

From a global point of view, data reuse and persistence are serious concerns. When data are not collected in a transparent way, is it possible to ensure that there will be no downward slide? This is what Juvenal sums up in his Satires:

Who will guard the guards themselves?

And Bruce Schneier even quotes Cardinal Richelieu (Schneier 2005):

Give me two lines written by a man, and I will find enough in it to have him condemned.

In other words: if need be, a government can always find suspicious aspects in an individual’s life to have them condemned or to blackmail them. An excellent example is The Trial by Kafka, in which the defendant ignores what he is accused of, and what information about him the judges have in their possession.

Moreover, Solove takes inspiration from this novel to highlight the iniquity of the “nothing to hide” statement (Solove 2011). According to him, this argument relies on a vision of private life as an individual right interfering or conflicting with the interests of the society. But, he explains, private life has a social value. Even if it protects individuals, it does so for the good of society (Guillaud 2009). This is something we must care of remembering, even when politics keep repeating the opposite.

Another–essential–point, is the persistence in time of gathered data, and the use that can be made of it, not only today but in one, two, or ten years from now. Even if the entity collecting data only has good intentions, there is no guaranty that people who will gain access to it in future will remain good-willing. On the contrary, as time passes, the odd that someone does pretty bad things increase. A very dark example about this was the situation of Jewish people in Germany, who had to declare themselves to the government in 1936, before repression grew to its full extent. Laws may change, after all: nothing can ensure that some behaviors we tolerate today will still be allowed in a some years.

4 Additional reasons to hide

4.1 “Do as I say, not what I do”

People in charge of the organizations setting up data collection mechanisms are not always so keen on sharing about their own private lives. Even if they deploy large scale services costing no money to the end user, but using targeted advertising to earn money, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) or Eric Schmidt (Google) have been pointed at for fiercely defending their own privacy (Nitot 2008).

4.2 Questionable utility of surveillance

In addition to all the above counter-arguments, efficiency of video or Internet surveillance systems is largely debated—not to say they are supposed to be highly inefficient (Manach 2009b; Fradin 2015). So if one should abandon their privacy, it might as well be for something useful. But at this point, I hope it’s understood that we should defend it at all costs!

5 A word on this article

This is some work I realized for Wikipedia, and this is why it feels sometimes “encyclopedic” in the tone rather than really engaged (I changed some parts from the Wikipedia version). Something worth noting is that I also tried to find pro arguments in favor of the “nothing to hide” statement while writing there, in the interests of objectivity; but that part feels empty in my opinion, as there is nothing really that could defend this point of view—or at least, no legitimate argument other than ignorance or passivity.

A last point to promote an interesting website: http://jenairienacacher.fr/ (Fr). I don’t know who is behind this page, but it also sums up a lot of things, and of links, to answer back to nothing-to-hiders. At the beginning of this article I stated that little work had been done to list all arguments to use in this context; but on this website you will find a link to a pad from La Quadrature du Net, with a lot of specific examples concerning the necessity to keep a private life. An English version is available as well. I had not found it prior to write my article, but now I can tell you it is definitely worth reading.


Chemla, Laurent. 2015. “Je n’ai rien à cacher.” https://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/laurent-chemla/060115/rien-cacher.

Dricot, Lionel. 2011. “Non, je n’ai rien à cacher.” https://ploum.net/rien-a-cacher/.

Fradin, Andréa. 2015. “L’algorithme du gouvernement sera intrusif et inefficace. On vous le prouve.” http://rue89.nouvelobs.com/2015/04/15/lalgorithme-gouvernement-sera-intrusif-inefficace-prouve-258672.

Guillaud, Hubert. 2009. “La valeur sociale de la vie privée.” http://www.internetactu.net/2009/10/21/la-valeur-sociale-de-la-vie-privee/.

Manach, Jean-Marc. 2009a. “Lettre ouverte à ceux qui n’ont rien à cacher.” http://www.internetactu.net/2010/05/21/lettre-ouverte-a-ceux-qui-nont-rien-a-cacher/.

———. 2009b. “Un rapport prouve l’inefficacité de la vidéosurveillance.” http://bugbrother.blog.lemonde.fr/2009/11/13/un-rapport-prouve-linefficacite-de-la-videosurveillance/.

Moore, Adam D. 2010. “Privacy Rights: Moral and Legal Foundations.”

Mordini, Emilio. 2008. “Nothing to Hide — Biometrics, Privacy and Private Sphere.”

Nitot, Tristan. 2008. “Dérapage d’Eric Schmidt, de Google.” http://standblog.org/blog/post/2009/12/11/D%C3%A9rapage-d-Eric-Schmidt-de-Google.

———. 2015a. “Flicage-brouillon - Partie 1 chapitre 7 - L’impact de la surveillance sur la sociéte.” http://standblog.org/blog/post/2015/01/23/Flicage-brouillon-Partie-1-chapitre-7-impact-de-la-surveillance-sur-la-societe.

———. 2015b. “Flicage-brouillon - Partie 1 chapitre 9 - Mais, je n’ai rien à cacher !” http://standblog.org/blog/post/2015/01/25/Flicage-brouillon-Partie-1-chapitre-9-rien-a-cacher.

Schneier, Bruce. 2005. “The Eternal Value of Privacy.” http://www.wired.com/politics/security/commentary/securitymatters/2006/05/70886.

Solove, Daniel J. 2011. “Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security.”

Vion-Dury, Philippe. 2014. “Grâce à vos données, on peut tout savoir de vous: voyez par vous-même.” http://rue89.nouvelobs.com/2014/08/30/grace-a-donnees-peut-tout-savoir-voyez-meme-254336.