Data Privacy Day 2014: Think you have nothing to hide? Think again

Monday, January 27, 2014

By Adam Kingsmith

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

This worn-out and oversimplified rationalization of mass surveillance continues to be used by governments and bureaucracies as a way to justify the gradual erosion of our privacy. Scholars, digital journalists, and free expression advocates in Canada and around the world have been working for years to protect data privacy and counter this highly problematic ‘nothing-to-hide’ argument. Yet this argument remains one of the principle justifications for why individuals should knowingly accept that their data is being collected and analyzed en masse.

The trouble with this concept is that it works under the faulty assumption that privacy is exclusively about secrecy. Massive government information gathering programs can be problematic, even if no secret information is uncovered. In many cases, privacy issues are never balanced against conflicting interests because legal systems fail to recognize the relationship between privacy and free expression. That tired, empty, ‘nothing-to-hide’ argument should be giving concerned citizens plenty to fear. The collection, storage and analysis of our digital data is eroding the fundamentals of a democratic society.

Here are four problems with your data being collected and stored:

1) Aggregation
Fusing small bits of seemingly innocuous data can produce very revealing insights. By aggregating pieces of ‘mundane’ information that we might not take pains to guard, government agencies can piece together larger, unwanted insights about our personal lives, beliefs, and activities that we may prefer to keep to ourselves.

2) Exclusion
We rarely have insight into how our data is being used, and are often barred from accessing and correcting errors in that information. The rise of this kind of information processing, which restricts our knowledge and involvement, reflects the increasing power imbalance between citizens and government agencies.

3) Secondary Use
Data obtained for a specific purpose is sometimes reappropriated for an unrelated use, without our consent. As the potential uses of information are limitless, it is next to impossible for us to assess the ways our information is being repurposed without some form of accountability in place addressing how our data can be used, and by whom.

4) Distortion
Although personal information can reveal a considerable amount about our behaviours and activities, it often fails to reflect the whole person. As such, data can paint a distorted and character-damaging picture, especially since government records are infamous for being reductive, often capturing information in a standardized format with many details omitted.

Daniel J. Solove, law professor at George Washington University, has pointed out that many of the detriments of mass surveillance policies do not stem from the loss of our confidentialities. Instead, the troubles come from the abuse, frustration, lack of transparency and accountability, and the suffocating powerlessness and vulnerability created when personal data is mined and stored without our knowledge or permission.

These erosions of privacy can proactively suppress free expression by aggregating, excluding, reusing, and distorting our personal information. But the nothing-to-hide argument strives to convince people that a highly complex and multifaceted right like privacy is simply about hiding ‘bad’ things.

And to an extent, it’s working.

According to Colin J. Bennett, author of The Privacy Advocates, the majority of people believe 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 behaviour has become routine and everyday.”

This consensual erosion of our freedoms is a slippery slope. Numerous freedoms have been sacrificed in the name of security. But privacy is a fundamental human right – and your data says a lot more about you than you may realize.

Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian believes that we need to speak up about privacy issues in order to protect our freedoms. There have been countless debates in the U.S. over the recent revelations of mass surveillance, and yet relative silence on the same issues here in Canada. This is exactly why we need to focus on the importance of protecting and fighting for the privacy of personal information online, for citizens around the globe.

“Privacy is often threatened not by a single egregious act but by the slow accretion of a series of relatively minor acts,” Solove concludes. Privacy is rarely lost in one formal policy move; rather, it is eroded gradually, little by little. We are currently foregoing our privacy so slowly that we are failing to realize that our lives are being turned into the equivalent of a reality show, with 24/7 surveillance.

It starts with a few monitored phone calls, then security cameras in public spaces. Soon there is satellite surveillance that tracks our movements, open access to our banking, or GPS chips that monitor our vitals. Where does it stop? Each step may seem incremental, and even logical, but after a while, the government will be able to watch and know everything about us. The technology to do all this is well on its way, the question is how much resistance it will face from the public.

January 28 marks Data Privacy Day, a reminder that the right to privacy is integral, closely linked to the right to free expression, and critical to protect.

We must remember that decisions we make regarding our private data will continue to impact us in the future, with the potential for great deviation. Once surveillance technologies are in place, the laws surrounding them can change in ways you may completely disagree with — but by then, it will be too late to reverse policy. Surveillance must be considered not only in terms of how it can be used today, but by future governments as well.

Implying that only dishonest people have a need for privacy blatantly disregards that privacy is a fundamental human right – not a luxury. Free expression provides us with the space to voice our thoughts, opinions and information. One of the most powerful aspects of free expression is that it is a choice. The decision to express yourself is all the more powerful because you can choose what you want to share about your life, and when you want to remain private. These two rights, privacy and free expression, are complementary and strengthen one another.

This is the epitome of Data Privacy Day; to the extent people are active online, it is our democratic duty to leverage our collective informational power to spread the essential message that as privacy continues to erode, so too will our ability to express ourselves freely. We must therefore speak up in order to protect both rights — while we still have the freedom to do so.

Adam is a member of CJFE’s Digital Issues Committee, freelance writer and PhD student in political science at York University, where his research explores the intersections of technology, governance and media theory. For more of his work, visit or follow him on Twitter: @akingsmith.