A review of Daniel Solove’s article: “I’ve got nothing to hide and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy”

The right to privacy and democracy are intrinsically intertwined in Canada. In fact, privacy is “ a right that is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” (A matter of Trust) and is a symbol of trust between government and Canadians. However, according to the Chief Justice of Canada, the threats of terrorism requires a need to reassess the measures needed to be taken for anti-terrorism. This brings up a key issue or tension, between how government perceives an individual’s right to privacy in respect to state security.

Fittingly, Daniel Solove’s piece, “I’ve got nothing to hide and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy” addresses two pivotal questions when talking about privacy: (1) How do we conceptualize privacy and (2) what is more important, the security of the state or the rights of the individual? Solove starts his piece by illustrating how the September 11 attacks propelled vigorous surveillance programs under the Bush Administration to collect data on people in order to map “suspicious behavior patterns” (Solove 746) to prevent future terrorism. Right away, the importance of state security is illustrated through the examination of the terrorist attack, and the idea is that any argument that is proposed against security is deemed arbitrary. In 2006 the NSA was reported to have collected personal data from telephone call databases and bank records from the “Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Transactions (SWIFT). While many people were concerned with these reports, it was more-or-less silenced and devalued by the government because their case was that an individual need not worry about privacy if you have nothing unlawful to conceal: “Only if people desire to conceal unlawful activity should they be concerned[…][and] people engaged in illegal conduct have no legitimate claim to maintaining the privacy of such activities” (Solove 751). By using such an abrasive and authoritative tone, the government unveils their lack of interest in listening to the American people. Furthermore, the government has twisted the legitimate concerns of the American people by turning the issue of privacy into something sinister and undesirable. Another issue that was illuminated when the news of government surveillance was reported was the ambivalence and blasé attitude from many Americans concerning their privacy with questions like

“ So what? Which is then followed by, “I have nothing to hide [anyways]” (Solove 747). Whether the fear that was evoked by the government influenced how they conceptualize privacy or not, the fact that people felt that they did not have the right to interfere with authoritative bureaucracy illuminates a larger problem within government and how society is governed by it.

But why were some people unconcerned with their privacy? To address the ambivalence, Solove uses two literary references: George Orwell’s 1984 and Franz Kaftka’s The Trial, to better illustrate the different types of government surveillance. While other commentators see 1984 as a useful example of “inhibition and social control” (Solove 756) due to government surveillance, Solove believes that people are not as concerned about keeping their social information such as the type of cars they rent, or which hotel they stayed private because it does not directly interfere with their personal lives. Instead, a better way to think about the harms of surveillance, contends Solove, is to look at NSA surveillance through a Kafkaesque lens. The central issue in The Trail concerns the exclusion of the individual from participating in the process of information collection. The overarching dilemma in The Trial concerns how information is stored, used, and analyzed—“rather than information collection” (Solove 757). The real issue is not what personal data is collected, but what the government intends to do with it and how transparent are their intentions?
Finally, Solove reiterates the difficulty with the nothing to hide argument because “most privacy problems lack dead bodies” (Solove 768), meaning that people tend to focus on issues that viscerally and physically affect them while data mining, and privacy intrusion is something intangible and abstract. However, he emphasizes that privacy invasion is still harmful because it involves how information is processed on a larger political scale; one that deals with federal agencies and third party agencies who may utilize personal data without the individual’s consent. When it comes to talking about privacy, the issue of security interests is always pitted against privacy interests, and ultimately the matter of security is given more merit. Therefore, it is necessary to rethink the issue of privacy is terms of not whether the government is allowed to access an individual’s personal data, but the need for a set of responsibilities that come with data collection and information appropriation.

Solove’s argument on privacy provides excellent insight for us to ruminate over, especially how many of us think of our own privacy versus state security. Surely, security should be not be an issue taken lightly, but to what extent is surveillance about protection against terrorist attacks, pedophilia, etc., as opposed to maintaining authoritative hierarchy? This concern is addressed by Evgeny Morozov in his article: “Wither Internet Control” to think about why the arguments put forth by the government should be taken with a grain of salt before being too transparent in favor of security. Because the Internet has become a space where people can gather and organize political/social movements, Morozov argues that it makes “authoritarian rulers uneasy” (Morozov 67) because people are able to engage in civil disobedience more easily than ever.

Another issue that Solove highlights is the way privacy is framed in the media. The problem is that by assuming that people have nothing to hide, privacy is not needed. This not only negates an individual’s right to choose their degree of privacy but it perpetuates anxiety in people for the fear of seemingly hiding something from the government when there is nothing to hide in the first place. It is interesting that even though there are tools available to encrypt personal information, the general population does not seek or take advantage of them. Take for example, Tor—“a browser that blocks ISP addresses and defends network surveillance and traffic analysis” ( Tor). Tor is a browser that provides its users privacy from government surveillance, but why is it that people are hesitant to use it? Of course there may be several factors that may explain why Tor is not widely used, but one of the main reasons is that personal privacy is still something people have yet to come to accept as an individual right even in democratic societies.

Works Cited:

Canada. Privacy Commissioner. “A matter of Trust: Integrating Privacy and Public Safety in the 21st century. [Ottawa, Ontario] : Privacy Commissioner of Canada. 2010. Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Web. 2. Nov 2012

Morozov, Evgeny. “Whither Internet Control?.” Journal of Democracy 22.2 (2011): 62-74.

Solove, Daniel. “‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy.” San Diego law review 44 (2007).

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