“Nothing to hide, Nothing to worry about”: A Human Rights Issue

I was reading Flowingdata.com this morning and the blog post at the top of the page was about privacy.  Nathan Yau says:

With all the stuff going on with surveillance and data privacy — especially the past week — it’s worthwhile to revisit this essay by Daniel J. Solove, a professor of law at George Washington University, on why privacy matters even if you “have nothing to hide.”

So, I went and read that article where they talk about the argument “nothing to hide, nothing to worry about.”  It seems obvious to me that this argument is weak, but in case you need some quick counter arguments, here is a list of response from that article:

  • My response is “So do you have curtains?” or “Can I see your credit-card bills for the last year?”
  • So my response to the “If you have nothing to hide … ” argument is simply, “I don’t need to justify my position. You need to justify yours. Come back with a warrant.”
  • I don’t have anything to hide. But I don’t have anything I feel like showing you, either.
  • If you have nothing to hide, then you don’t have a life.
  • Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.
  • It’s not about having anything to hide, it’s about things not being anyone else’s business.
  • Bottom line, Joe Stalin would [have] loved it. Why should anyone have to say more?

These are all great counter arguments to the “nothing to hide, nothing to worry about” argument, but I’d like to add another: Privacy is a basic human right. I realize that sounds dramatic, but go read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for yourself.

Article 12: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

And why are human rights important?  From the preamble:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

So, according to the United Nations, one of your basic human rights is your right to privacy, and human rights are the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace. That’s a big deal. A really big deal. Let me repeat this one more time: Your privacy is a big deal.

The UN does add the caveat of “arbitrary interference” because of course there are situations where you lose the right to privacy. So what does arbitrary mean? Just to be sure I looked up the definition. Google returns two definitions. The first is “Based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system” and the second is “(of power or a ruling body) Unrestrained and autocratic in the use of authority.” From what little I have read about the NSA privacy stuff, it sounds like these definitions are describing exactly this situation. The “51% sure” that a person is foreign sure sounds a lot like “personal whim” to me. Whether or not this data collection is an “arbitrary interference” is a debate that we need to have as a society. Where is the line?

The issue of privacy and where this line is is particularly interesting to me because when I was in graduate school I wrote my dissertation on statistical disclosure control. This involves attempting to balance the dissemination to researchers of useful data against the privacy of the individual. In terms of what I was studying, the benefit of data dissemination is useful research, often on topics of public health, whereas in the NSA situation the alleged benefit is in fighting terrorism. In both cases, the risk is the erosion of individual privacy. In public health neither extreme is an acceptable solution. Either you release none of the data and you have perfect privacy at the cost of halting scientific research, or you release all of the data to anyone who wants to use it for research (or any other purpose!) and you achieve maximum utility at the cost of total lack of privacy. Some balance between these two must be struck. I think it’s probably the same with the NSA and the government: Some balance must be struck between fighting terrorists, who are a real and legitimate threat, and the ideals that we have as citizens of the United States and as human beings.

One of the difficulties in having this debate, and again I’ll make a comparison to my research, is that quantifying utility and privacy in many situations is very difficult. This makes it hard to really quantify the costs and benefits associated with decisions on where to draw the line when releasing data to researchers. This is likely even more difficult to quantify with what the NSA is doing. If we could easily measure how much terrorism is prevented versus how much privacy we are losing, society could have a debate and reach some sort of conclusion. But we don’t have these measures. (One potential way to measure terrorism would be in attacks prevented, but it’s virtually impossible to do this with any accuracy. And measuring privacy might be even more challenging.) If this were an economic problem we could weigh the costs versus the benefits on some monetary scale. If this were drug testing we would weigh the benefits of the drug versus the side-effects. But in this situation there is no clear way to measure either of these concepts in an objective way, and even if we could, everyone has a different idea about where the bar should be set.

So ultimately, as a society, we’re in a situation where we need to have a debate about privacy protection versus terrorism prevention where both sides have important concerns that are often in conflict with one another. We need to decide where to tip the scale so that we balance these two things in a meaningful way that respects our American and international ideals of freedom, justice, and peace. But we need to do this without using any objective scale. It’s a an extremely difficult problem and it’s just going to get more complicated as we move further into a world dominated by data.


Posted on June 11, 2013, in Privacy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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