Is There a Good Response to the “Nothing to Hide” Argument?

skeleton-in-closet.jpgOne of the most common attitudes of those unconcerned about government surveillance or privacy invasions is “I’ve got nothing to hide.” I was talking the issue over one day with a few colleagues in my field, and we all agreed that thus far, those emphasizing the value of privacy had not been able to articulate an answer to the “nothing to hide” argument that would really register with people in the general public. In a thoughtful essay in Wired (cross posted at his blog), Bruce Schneier seeks to develop a response to this argument:

The most common retort against privacy advocates — by those in favor of ID checks, cameras, databases, data mining and other wholesale surveillance measures — is this line: “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?”

Some clever answers: “If I’m not doing anything wrong, then you have no cause to watch me.” “Because the government gets to define what’s wrong, and they keep changing the definition.” “Because you might do something wrong with my information.” My problem with quips like these — as right as they are — is that they accept the premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong. It’s not. Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect.

As a pragmatist, I’m generally unconvinced by inherent rights talk. But Schneier goes on to discuss a reason for restricting government surveillance that I do agree with — ensuring that government power is appropriately checked, monitored, and limited from potential abuse.

Another argument is that if you look hard enough at someone’s life, in the words of playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “a crime can always be found.” With the infinite tangle of criminal laws in this country, Durrenmatt’s line might belong in a work of non-fiction rather than fiction. But this response gets back to Schneier’s objection that we shouldn’t focus on privacy as protection to hide wrongdoing.

One response that I find particularly compelling is that there is a value in not having to explain and justify oneself, something that might become necessary when the government is trolling through personal data. Things that look odd might spark some speculation or negative inferences, and a person might feel the need to explain the context and background. Should people always have to be prepared to justify themselves and explain their behavior? How will one’s data trail appear to government officials judging it at a distance? What’s worse, people might never even get the opportunity to explain.

But still, the person who says “I have nothing to hide” might not be concerned about her data being misinterpreted or in having to justify herself.

Are there other good responses to the “I have nothing to hide” argument? I’m curious if anyone can articulate a compelling response that will have widespread appeal.

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106 Responses

  1. Mike says:


    I can not even believe this is an argument.

    Scare scare Monger Monger is obviously working if we have people that will just throw away there constitutional rights which our forfathers fought so hard to earn for us. Anyone who says I have nothing to hide as an excuse for what is happening with data collection and warentless wiretaps should be ashamed. Your just afraid, and the fear has tainted your basic common sence.

  2. Mike says:


    If your so willing to give up your rights perhaps you should pack up your stuff and move to China where big brother is always watching. Perhaps then you would gain some insight in why these rights to privacy were put in the constitution in the first place

  3. maybe in order to reach the “average joe” guy maybe just as target marketing does you may have to tweak the words a bit and hit home where they will and may have felt it.

    all this privacy boils down to following the constitution. if we would have followed the constitution we could have avoided many things that the “average joe” can feel right now and thats his pocket… are you with me? may i explain… its simple, our forefathers fought damn hard to give each of us the liberties we have. Oh yes… and even to the freedom to not even do a damn thing about our freedom or care about how it will affect our friends or families. why do these clowns have the right to not care, vote, study history, understand our constitution, or even educate ones self? because our forefathers believed that every person should have their privacy to be stupid if they so choose.

    … Now, how or where does this affect the “average joe” pockets? every privacy infringing act the Government does affects the “average Joe” not just in their phone call, email, financial, medical, organization joining, and group affiliation… It hits their pockets in TAXES every time the Government Grows another program out of its ass to support these constitution infringing acts it calls domestic spying program, patriot act… etc. etc. it is not the wicked, but the weak that allow this Government encroachment to happen. Its the people that live in denial, its the people that say “if it dont affect me i dont care” wake up people do you think you would be living in this country with the right of apathy (or stupidity) today if our founding fathers said the same damn thing? Our constitution does not give the Government the right to to infringe on our privacy, its in our constitution that those people died to give us our rights. So saying that they can come kick in your door with writs of assistance because you do not have anything to hide is like spitting on the very reason our country fought for a r3volution.

    So I say to you “average joe” the next time you pay $5 at the ga$ pump or wonder why your beer is taxed so much you can blame BIG Government for raising taxes to support these expensive spy and data mining programs. I believe in America not Government. “he who gives up even a little liberty for security, is stupid” -Rich

  4. I didn’t bother reading all the comments but I’m sure somebody would have said this already. The issue for me is not about hiding anything, but more of keeping my business mine alone.

  5. irrrroncare! says:

    I agree with GregW

    and irrroncare!

    I’m happy I don’t live in countries that are still fighting for freedom –those countries are probably living better because they don’t worry about primitive topics concerned with the Self constantly…

  6. Spovednik says:

    Well, I just ask back: “Can i watch you poop?”