UK Liberty

If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear

Update 2

Because no-one would ever misuse the data or make a mistake, right?

Update 1

The article below I think can be written more simply as follows:

The contention that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear presupposes that those with access to information will not abuse it, whether on behalf of themselves for (say) curiosity or money, or on behalf of the state.

Unfortunately there is plenty of precedent to suggest otherwise, ranging from individual abuses to the facilitation of mass abuse, such as by the Stasi, or those committing genocide.

That is why even those who think they have nothing to hide may in fact have something to fear.

Old article

Do you use some sort of cover for your windows – curtains, or blinds?

Would you be irritated or upset if you discovered someone had eavesdropped on your phone conversations or read your personal correspondence without your permission?

Do you prefer your medical records to remain confidential between you and your doctor?

Do you prefer to keep your vote secret from others?

It seems to me that most people would answer ‘yes’ to such questions, even if they might find it difficult to articulate why.

For example, I can’t explain exactly why I close my curtains at night. I’m not particularly concerned about being spied upon by CCTV operators – I just feel uncomfortable with people in general looking in. But I don’t commit crimes, so what do I have to hide?

What expectations of privacy do you have? What are you prepared to make known to others – what are you prepared to ‘trade-off’ – in order to gain a particular benefit?

Suppose it was proposed that crime could be almost completely eradicated if there was a CCTV camera and microphone and loudspeaker in every room of every home.

Would you support such a proposal?

If it saves the life of just one child it will be worth it, won’t it?

There was a poll (68Kb gif, Telegraph/YouGov) that showed some differences of opinion between people on aspects of the ‘surveillance society’. For example, 97% of the public supported the use of CCTV in banks, and 93% in trains and buses – but only 65% supported CCTV in taxis.


Another example: 50% supported the introduction of a system of identity cards to Britain, but only 16% approved of identity cards being used to track everyone’s movements.


What about the proposal that NHS medical records – by far the most popular topic on this blog – should be centrally stored? Many people are concerned about what information will be stored, who will have access to it, what it will be used for, and so on. Concerned enough to read blogs such as this and click through the links to other articles.


This issue is about where we as individuals draw the line: we each have different expectations of privacy; different concerns about what we prefer to keep to ourselves, what we are willing to trade, and what we don’t particularly mind people knowing.

And it’s about the use and misuse of the data that is associated with you. Unfortunately we don’t live in a utopia: sometimes people make mistakes; sometimes people are dishonest, others are evil. There is certainly a case for rational distrust.

We therefore need to consider the risks involved with entrusting our private information to others – weighing up the pros and cons as best we can. How can mistakes and abuses be prevented? What are the likelihoods of mistakes and abuses? How can the effects of mistakes and abuses be mitigated? What legal remedies will be available to us?

But some people want to deny us those choices.

I don’t believe they have malign intentions.

They believe they know best: they claim it is in your best interests, and/or the best interests of society as a whole.

But they hinder us from gathering as much information we can about their proposals. After all, how can we come to an informed decision if we are unaware of the facts?

And the rules are such that it is difficult if not impossible to make our choices ourselves.

Sometimes they are even dishonest about their plans.

In conclusion, the claim that “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” is, at best, ignorant, and at worst, dishonest.

It is a much more complicated issue than can be summed up in those eleven words, or even an article of this length.

We need to improve education on the pros and cons of surveillance, the database state, individual proposals, and other issues relating to privacy.

When a privacy infringing measure is proposed, we each need to consider what we are willing to trade away in order to save money, prevent crime, prevent terrorism, reduce illegal immigration and working – or whatever is among the benefits of the proposal.

And we need to consider removing from power those people who seek to deny us choice about what we want to keep private and how private we want to keep it.

4 Responses

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  1. DW said, on April 3, 2007 at 11:12 am

    And of those people who like to parrot the ‘nothing to hide’ mantra, have you ever encountered any who can actually substantiate the reasoning for this assertion of faith?

    My own background is considered by many as being ‘suspiciously clean’. I’m frequently in the position of not wishing to expose the fact that I have nothing to hide, as it were. I pay my taxes, I don’t break the law – I’m even nice to people if I can be – and yet the government seems to think that the only reason for my clean record is that they weren’t watching closely enough. And as you say, they actively resist any reciprocal scrutiny.

    Sure, people see me walking along the street – but at least they have the good manners not to take notes!

  2. ukliberty said, on April 3, 2007 at 11:46 am

    “And of those people who like to parrot the ‘nothing to hide’ mantra, have you ever encountered any who can actually substantiate the reasoning for this assertion of faith?”

    Well, they haven’t substantiated it to my satisfaction!

    It seems a specious argument.

    I don’t intend to seem pompous here, but I think for most people it is born from ignorance, and for other people – such as those in Government – it is born from dishonesty.

    After all, if the Government admits to any risk at all, the public will have doubt in the proposal. This doubt may be partially or even wholly unwarranted, but I don’t believe that is reason for dishonesty – it is reason for education.

    Unfortunately the Government seems too paternalist.

    Thank you for commenting.



  3. Privacy as a retreat « UK Liberty said, on April 23, 2007 at 9:49 pm

    […] more eloquent than my comments on “window coverings“, although I maintain they are a useful rhetorical […]

  4. […] Top Posts The blame gameThe Blair legacy is a police state – if we let himIf you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear […]

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