Nothing to hide argument

The nothing to hide argument states that government surveillance programs do not threaten privacy unless they uncover illegal activities, and that if they do uncover illegal activities, the person committing these activities does not have the right to keep them private.

A person who favors this argument may state "I've got nothing to hide" and therefore does not express opposition to government surveillance.[1] An individual using this argument may say that a person should not worry about government or surveillance if they have "nothing to hide."[2]

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


In his 1919 muckraking exposé The Brass Check, Upton Sinclair wrote (referring to the 1914 Lexington Avenue explosion):

From first to last I had nothing to hide, and for that reason I had nothing to fear, and this was as well known to the newspapers as it was to the police who were probing the explosion.[4]


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.[5] 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".[6]

Effect on privacy protectionEdit

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."[7] They explained that privacy is an abstract concept and people only become concerned with it once their privacy is gone.[7] Furthermore, they compare a loss to privacy with people knowing that ozone depletion and global warming are negative developments, but "the immediate gains of driving the car to work or putting on hairspray outweigh the often invisible losses of polluting the environment."[7]


An ethnographic study by Ana Viseu, Andrew Clement, and Jane Aspinal revealed that well to do individuals, measured by socioeconomic status, were not as concerned by surveillance as their counterparts.[8] In another study regarding privacy-enhancing technology[9], Viseu et al. noticed a compliancy regarding user privacy. [10] Both studies attributed this attitude to the nothing to hide argument. [7][8]

During a qualitative study conducted for the government of the United Kingdom around 2003,[11] Dr. Perri 6[12] presented four outlooks on privacy risks with a mapping of eight frames to show privacy attitude distributions.[11] According to the study, men who were self-employed 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.[13]

Arguments for and againstEdit

In favor of the argumentEdit

When discussing the MAINWAY program, former U.S. Senate majority leader Trent Lott stated "What are people worried about? What is the problem? Are you doing something you're not supposed to?"[14]

Johann Hari, a British writer, argued that the "nothing to hide" argument is irrelevant to the placement of CCTV cameras in public places in the United Kingdom because the cameras are public areas where one is observed by many people he or she would be unfamiliar with and not in "places where you hide".[15]

In November 2015, British Conservative Party MP Richard Graham was accused of quoting Joseph Goebbels in defending a new surveillance bill with the words "if you've nothing to hide you have nothing to fear". Former Conservative Foreign Secretary William Hague also used the same phrase in 2013.[16]

Against the argumentEdit

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."[17] "When you say, ‘I have nothing to hide,’ you’re saying, ‘I don’t care about this right.’ You’re saying, ‘I don’t have this right, because I’ve got to the point where I have to justify it.’ The way rights work is, the government has to justify its intrusion into your rights."[18]

Daniel J. Solove stated in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education that he opposes the argument; he stated that a government 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, and that a government can cause damage to one's personal life through making errors.[3] Solove wrote "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."[3]

danah boyd (name styled lowercase), a social media researcher, opposes the argument, stating that even though "[p]eople often feel immune from state surveillance because they’ve done nothing wrong," an entity or group can distort a person's image and harm one's reputation, or guilt by association can be used to defame a person.[19]

Adam D. Moore, author of Privacy Rights: Moral and Legal Foundations, argued, "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."[20] He also stated that surveillance can disproportionately affect certain groups in society based on appearance, ethnicity, and religion.[20] Moore maintains that there are at least three other problems with the "nothing to hide" argument. First, if individuals have privacy rights, then invoking "nothing to hide" is irrelevant. Privacy, understood as a right to control access to and use of spaces, locations, and personal information, means that it is the right holder who determines access. To drive this point home Moore offers the following case. "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?'" [20] Second, individuals may wish to hide embarrassing behavior or conduct not accepted by the dominant culture. "Consider someone’s sexual or medical history. Imagine someone visiting a library to learn about alternative lifestyles not accepted by the majority." [20] Finally, Moore argues that "nothing to hide," if taken seriously, could be used against government agents, politicians, and CEO's. This is to turn the “nothing to hide” argument on its head. Moore argues that the NSA agent, politician, police chief, and CEO have nothing to hide so they should embrace total transparency like the rest of us. "But they don’t and when given the technological tools to watch, the politician, police chief, or CEO are almost always convinced that watching others is a good thing." [20]

Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert and cryptographer, expressed opposition, citing Cardinal Richelieu's statement "If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged", referring to how a state government can find aspects in a person's life in order to prosecute or blackmail that individual.[21] Schneier also argued "Too many wrongly characterize the debate as 'security versus privacy.' The real choice is liberty versus control."[21]

Emilio Mordini, philosopher and psychoanalyst, argued that the "nothing to hide" argument is inherently paradoxical. People do not need to have "something to hide" in order to hide "something". What is hidden is not necessarily relevant, claims Mordini. Instead, he argues an intimate area which can be both hidden and access-restricted is necessary since, psychologically speaking, we become individuals through the discovery that we could hide something to others.[22]

Julian Assange states: "There is no killer answer yet. Jacob Appelbaum (@ioerror) has a clever response, asking people who say this to then hand him their phone unlocked and pull down their pants. My version of that is to say, 'well, if you're so boring then we shouldn't be talking to you, and neither should anyone else', but philosophically, the real answer is this: 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."[23]

Harvey A. Silverglate estimated that the common person, on average, unknowingly commits three felonies a day in the US.[24]

Ignacio Cofone, law professor, argues that the argument is mistaken in its own terms because, whenever people disclose relevant information to others, they also disclose irrelevant information. This irrelevant information has privacy costs and can lead to other harms, such as discrimination.[25]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Mordini, p. 252.
  2. ^ 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."
  3. ^ a b c d e 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. ^ Sinclair, Upton (1919). The Brass Check. Pasadena, CA: the author. p. 194.
  5. ^ Bennett, p. 97.
  6. ^ Bennett, p. 97-98.
  7. ^ a b c d Viseu, et al. p. 103.
  8. ^ a b Best, p. 12.
  9. ^ Viseu, et al. p. 102-103.
  10. ^ Viseu, et al. p. 102.
  11. ^ a b OECD, "Appendix II: Can We Be Persuaded to Become Pet-Lovers?" p. 323.
  12. ^ OECD, "Appendix II: Can We Be Persuaded to Become Pet-Lovers?" p. 305
  13. ^ 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."
  14. ^ "BellSouth denies giving records to NSA". CNN. Retrieved 2006-05-15.
  15. ^ Hari, Johann. "Johann Hari: This strange backlash against CCTV." The Independent. Monday March 17, 2008. Retrieved on June 26, 2013.
  16. ^ Bartlett, Evan (4 November 2015). "Tory MP Richard Graham accused of quoting Joseph Goebbels in defence of new surveillance bill". The Independent. Retrieved 6 July 2017.
  17. ^ "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.
  18. ^ "Edward Snowden's Privacy Tips: "Get Rid Of Dropbox," Avoid Facebook And Google". TechCrunch. Retrieved 2017-01-11.
  19. ^ boyd, danah. "Danah Boyd: The problem with the ‘I have nothing to hide’ argument." (Opinion) The Dallas Morning News. June 14, 2013. Retrieved on June 25, 2013. "It’s disturbing to me how often I watch as someone’s likeness is constructed in ways[...]"
  20. ^ a b c d e Moore, p. 204.
  21. ^ a b Schneier, Bruce. "The Eternal Value of Privacy." Schneier on Security. May 18, 2006. Retrieved on May 13, 2017.
  22. ^ Mordini "Nothing to Hide — Biometrics, Privacy and Private Sphere." p.257-60
  23. ^ "Courage Foundation: Reddit AMA". Archived from the original on 2015-04-10. Retrieved 2015-04-08.
  24. ^ Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. Encounter Books. 2011. ISBN 9781594032554.
  25. ^ Cofone, Ignacio N. (2019-12-14). "Nothing to hide, but something to lose". University of Toronto Law Journal. 70 (1): 64–90. ISSN 1710-1174.


Further readingEdit