Nothing to hide argument

The nothing to hide argument is a logical fallacy which states that individuals have no reason to fear or oppose surveillance programs unless they are afraid it will uncover their own illicit activities. An individual using this argument may claim that an average person should not worry about government surveillance, as they would have "nothing to hide".[1]



An early instance of this argument was referenced by Henry James in his 1888 novel, The Reverberator:

If these people had done bad things they ought to be ashamed of themselves and he couldn't pity them, and if they hadn't done them there was no need of making such a rumpus about other people knowing.

Upton Sinclair also referenced a similar argument in his book The Profits of Religion, published in 1917 :

Not merely was my own mail opened, but the mail of all my relatives and friends — people residing in places as far apart as California and Florida. I recall the bland smile of a government official to whom I complained about this matter: "If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear." My answer was that a study of many labor cases had taught me the methods of the agent provocateur. He is quite willing to take real evidence if he can find it; but if not, he has familiarized himself with the affairs of his victim, and can make evidence which will be convincing when exploited by the yellow press.[2]

The motto "If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear" has been used in defense of the closed-circuit television program practiced in the United Kingdom.[3]



This argument is commonly used in discussions regarding privacy. Geoffrey Stone, a legal scholar, said that the use of the argument is "all-too-common".[3] Bruce Schneier, a data security expert and cryptographer, described it as the "most common retort against privacy advocates."[3] Colin J. Bennett, author of The Privacy Advocates, said that an advocate of privacy often "has to constantly refute" the argument.[4] Bennett explained that most people "go through their daily lives believing that surveillance processes are not directed at them, but at the miscreants and wrongdoers" and that "the dominant orientation is that mechanisms of surveillance are directed at others" despite "evidence that the monitoring of individual behavior has become routine and everyday".

An ethnographic study by Ana Viseu, Andrew Clement, and Jane Aspinal revealed that individuals with higher socioeconomic status were not as concerned by surveillance as their counterparts.[5] In another study regarding privacy-enhancing technology,[6] Viseu et al., noticed a compliancy regarding user privacy. Both studies attributed this attitude to the nothing to hide argument.

A qualitative study conducted for the government of the United Kingdom around 2003[7] found that self-employed men initially used the "nothing to hide" argument before shifting to an argument in which they perceived surveillance to be a nuisance instead of a threat.[8]

Viseu et al., said that the argument "has been well documented in the privacy literature as a stumbling block to the development of pragmatic privacy protection strategies, and it, too, is related to the ambiguous and symbolic nature of the term ‘privacy' itself."[6] They explained that privacy is an abstract concept and people only become concerned with it once their privacy is gone. Furthermore, they compare a loss to privacy with people knowing that ozone depletion and global warming are negative developments, but that "the immediate gains of driving the car to work or putting on hairspray outweigh the often invisible losses of polluting the environment."



Whistleblower and anti-surveillance advocate Edward Snowden remarked that "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."[9] From his perspective, governments are obligated to protect citizens' right to privacy, and people who argue in favor of the nothing to hide argument are too willing to accept government infringement upon those rights.

Daniel J. Solove stated in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education that he opposes the argument. He was concerned that without privacy rights, governments could do damage to citizens by leaking sensitive information, or use information about a person to deny access to services, even if that person has not actually committed any crimes. Solove also wrote that a government can cause damage to an individual's personal life by making errors:[3] "When engaged directly, the nothing-to-hide argument can ensnare, for it forces the debate to focus on its narrow understanding of privacy. But when confronted with the plurality of privacy problems implicated by government data collection and use beyond surveillance and disclosure, the nothing-to-hide argument, in the end, has nothing to say."

Adam D. Moore, author of Privacy Rights: Moral and Legal Foundations, argued that "it is the view that rights are resistant to cost/benefit or consequentialist sort of arguments. Here we are rejecting the view that privacy interests are the sorts of things that can be traded for security."[10] He also stated that surveillance can disproportionately affect certain groups in society based on appearance, ethnicity, sexuality, and religion.

Cryptographer and computer security expert Bruce Schneier expressed opposition to the nothing to hide argument, citing a statement widely attributed to Cardinal Richelieu:[11] "Give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I'll find enough to hang him." This metaphor is meant to illustrate that with even a small amount of information about an individual, an entity such as a government can find a way to prosecute or blackmail them.[12] Schneier also argued that the actual choice is between "liberty versus control", rather than "security versus privacy".[12]

Philosopher and psychoanalyst Emilio Mordini argued that the "nothing to hide" argument is inherently paradoxical, because people do not need to have "something to hide" in order to be hiding "something". Mordini makes the point that the content of what is hidden is not necessarily relevant; instead, he argues that it is necessary to have an intimate area which can be both hidden and access-restricted, because–from a psychological perspective–people become individuals when they discover that it is possible to hide something from others.[13]

Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, agreed with Jacob Appelbaum and remarked that "Mass surveillance is a mass structural change. When society goes bad, it's going to take you with it, even if you are the blandest person on earth."[14]

Law professor Ignacio Cofone argued that the argument is mistaken in its own terms because whenever people disclose relevant information to others, they also must disclose irrelevant information, and this irrelevant information has privacy costs and can lead to discrimination or other harmful effects.[15][16]

Alex Winter, an actor and filmmaker best known for his role as Bill Preston in the "Bill & Ted" films, stated in his Ted Talk that he doesn't "Accept the idea that if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear. Privacy serves a purpose. It’s why we have blinds on our windows and a door on our bathroom."[17]

See also



  1. ^ Solove, Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security, p. 1. "If you've got nothing to hide, you shouldn't worry about government surveillance."
  2. ^ Sinclair, Upton (1918). The Profits of Religion: An Essay in Economic Interpretation. Pasadena, CA: the author. p. 145.
  3. ^ a b c d Solove, Daniel J. "Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have 'Nothing to Hide'." The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 15, 2011. Retrieved on June 25, 2013. "The nothing-to-hide argument pervades discussions about privacy. The data security expert Bruce Schneier calls it the "most common retort against privacy advocates." The legal scholar Geoffrey Stone refers to it as an "all-too-common refrain." In its most compelling form, it is an argument that the privacy interest is generally minimal, thus making the contest with security concerns a foreordained victory for security."
  4. ^ Bennett, p. 97.
  5. ^ Best, p. 12.
  6. ^ a b Viseu, et al. p. 102-103.
  7. ^ OECD, "Appendix II: Can We Be Persuaded to Become Pet-Lovers?" p. 323.
  8. ^ OECD, "Appendix II: Can We Be Persuaded to Become Pet-Lovers?" p. 326. "The self-employed males, by contrast, who operated as brokers in networks; might sometimes begin with the "nothing to hide" frame, in which they would claim that no one with anything to hide need be concerned about privacy at all, but quickly shifted to the "inconvenience" frame, in which data collection and sharing was seen more as a nuisance than as a threat."
  9. ^ "Just days left to kill mass surveillance under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. We are Edward Snowden and the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer. AUA. • /r/IAmA". reddit. Retrieved 2016-10-27.
  10. ^ Moore, p. 204.
  11. ^ "Cardinal Richelieu - Wikiquote". 2023-05-31.
  12. ^ a b Schneier, Bruce. "The Eternal Value of Privacy." Schneier on Security. May 18, 2006. Retrieved on May 13, 2017.
  13. ^ Mordini "Nothing to Hide — Biometrics, Privacy and Private Sphere." pp.257-260
  14. ^ "Courage Foundation: Reddit AMA". Archived from the original on 2015-04-10. Retrieved 2015-04-08.
  15. ^ Cofone, Ignacio N. (2019-12-14). "Nothing to hide, but something to lose". University of Toronto Law Journal. 70 (1): 64–90. doi:10.3138/utlj.2018-0118. ISSN 1710-1174. S2CID 169140315.
  16. ^ Cofone, Ignacio (2023). The Privacy Fallacy: Harm and Power in the Information Economy. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781108995443.
  17. ^ Winter, Alex. "The Dark Net isn't what you think. It's actually key to our privacy". TEDxMidAtlantic.



Further reading