where “nothing to hide” fails as logic

Every April, I try to wade through mounds of paperwork to file my taxes. Like most Americans, I’m trying to follow the law and pay all of the taxes that I owe without getting screwed in the process. I try and make sure that every donation I made is backed by proof, every deduction is backed by logic and documentation that I’ll be able to make sense of three to seven years later. Because, like many Americans, I completely and utterly dread the idea of being audited. Not because I’ve done anything wrong, but the exact opposite. I know that I’m filing my taxes to the best of my ability and yet, I also know that if I became a target of interest from the IRS, they’d inevitably find some checkbox I forgot to check or some subtle miscalculation that I didn’t see. And so what makes an audit intimidating and scary is not because I have something to hide but because proving oneself to be innocent takes time, money, effort, and emotional grit.

Sadly, I’m getting to experience this right now as Massachusetts refuses to believe that I moved to New York mid-last-year. It’s mindblowing how hard it is to summon up the paperwork that “proves” to them that I’m telling the truth. When it was discovered that Verizon (and presumably other carriers) was giving metadata to government officials, my first thought was: wouldn’t it be nice if the government would use that metadata to actually confirm that I was in NYC not Massachusetts. But that’s the funny thing about how data is used by our current government. It’s used to create suspicion, not to confirm innocence.

The frameworks of “innocent until proven guilty” and “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” are really really important to civil liberties, even if they mean that some criminals get away. These frameworks put the burden on the powerful entity to prove that someone has done something wrong. Because it’s actually pretty easy to generate suspicion, even when someone is wholly innocent. And still, even with this protection, innocent people are sentenced to jail and even given the death penalty. Because if someone has a vested interest in you being guilty, it’s often viable to paint that portrait, especially if you have enough data. Just watch as the media pulls up random quotes from social media sites whenever someone hits the news to frame them in a particular light.

It’s disturbing to me how often I watch as someone’s likeness is constructed in ways that contorts the image of who they are. This doesn’t require a high-stakes political issue. This is playground stuff. In the world of bullying, I’m astonished at how often schools misinterpret situations and activities to construct narratives of perpetrators and victims. Teens get really frustrated when they’re positioned as perpetrators, especially when they feel as though they’ve done nothing wrong. Once the stakes get higher, all hell breaks loose. In “Sticks and Stones”, Emily Bazelon details how media and legal involvement in bullying cases means that they often spin out of control, such as they did in South Hadley. I’m still bothered by the conviction of Dharun Ravi in the highly publicized death of Tyler Clementi. What happens when people are tarred and feathered as symbols for being imperfect?

Of course, it’s not just one’s own actions that can be used against one’s likeness. Guilt-through-association is a popular American pastime. Remember how the media used Billy Carter to embarrass Jimmy Carter? Of course, it doesn’t take the media or require an election cycle for these connections to be made. Throughout school, my little brother had to bear the brunt of teachers who despised me because I was a rather rebellious students. So when the Boston marathon bombing occurred, it didn’t surprise me that the media went hogwild looking for any connection to the suspects. Over and over again, I watched as the media took friendships and song lyrics out of context to try to cast the suspects as devils. By all accounts, it looks as though the brothers are guilty of what they are accused of, but that doesn’t make their friends and other siblings evil or justify the media’s decision to portray the whole lot in such a negative light.

So where does this get us? People often feel immune from state surveillance because they’ve done nothing wrong. This rhetoric is perpetuated on American TV. And yet the same media who tells them they have nothing to fear will turn on them if they happen to be in close contact with someone who is of interest to – or if they themselves are the subject of – state interest. And it’s not just about now, but it’s about always.

And here’s where the implications are particularly devastating when we think about how inequality, racism, and religious intolerance play out. As a society, we generate suspicion of others who aren’t like us, particularly when we believe that we’re always under threat from some outside force. And so the more that we live in doubt of other people’s innocence, the more that we will self-segregate. And if we’re likely to believe that people who aren’t like us are inherently suspect, we won’t try to bridge those gaps. This creates societal ruptures and undermines any ability to create a meaningful republic. And it reinforces any desire to spy on the “other” in the hopes of finding something that justifies such an approach. But, like I said, it doesn’t take much to make someone appear suspect.

In many ways, the NSA situation that’s unfolding in front of our eyes is raising a question that is critical to the construction of our society. These issues cannot be washed away by declaring personal innocence. A surveillance state will produce more suspect individuals. What’s at stake has to do with how power is employed, by whom, and in what circumstances. It’s about questioning whether or not we still believe in checks and balances to power. And it’s about questioning whether or not we’re OK with continue to move towards a system that presumes entire classes and networks of people as suspect. Regardless of whether or not you’re in one of those classes or networks, are you OK with that being standard fare? Because what is implied in that question is a much uglier one: Is your perception of your safety worth the marginalization of other people who don’t have your privilege?

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19 thoughts on “where “nothing to hide” fails as logic

  1. Eric

    Don’t forget that the average American commits 3 felonies a day. Its not that you’ve done nothing wrong. Its that you have, you just don’t know what.


    “There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.” – Ayn Rand

  2. Andrew

    I use a simpler argument: “Nothing to hide? What’s your social security number? No? Then what are you hiding, terrorist?”

    Another interesting observation is that if the government claims to have not broken the law and has nothing to hide, why are they getting all mad from the leaks?

  3. Michael Vario

    “And yet the same media who tells them they have nothing to fear will turn on them if they happen to be in close contact with someone who is of interest to – or if they themselves are the subject of – state interest.”

    So true. Two words: Richard Jewel.

  4. Jim

    You’re clearly a terrorist who hates freedom. Why do you hate freedom? Is it because you’ve got something to hide?

    We’ll be over in the morning.


    Your Good Friends at the NSA.

  5. Billy S

    Why is the government upset at these leaks?

    Surely they have done nothing wrong, and therefore have nothing to hide?

  6. Scott Hedrick

    Don’t know how useful it would be to you, I recall Rush Limbaugh having a similar problem. He moved his domicile to Florida, and New York refused to accept it, and kept piling on penalties for failure to file. A little research might see how it worked out.

  7. John Tinker

    People think of Big Brother as a single consciousness – but it is really an army of analysts, managers and directors. Any one of them can abuse the information in front of them. Maybe they have an axe to grind. Maybe the notice information about a competitor. Maybe they are trying to get even with their ex-wife. Maybe they have a religious view that compells them in some way. Maybe they have a plan “for the good of the country.” The law of large numbers tells us that some of this will obtain, at least some of the time.

    Besides these dangers, the growth of the security state has followed a long series of crimes committed by the political leadership of this country. The dynamic of allowing these same people to design our future national character is going to lead to some sort of breaking point either with human nature, or natural resources. Ultimately empires of this sort fail. It is just a matter of time.

    We should be winding back the militarism and the security state, and trying to achieve a more human and humane civilization. Otherwise we will become just one more society in the dustbin of history.

  8. Michael


    I enthusiastically agree with 100% of what you say, right up until the last few sentences. Half of it is just a personal aversion to “blank is about blank,” a phrasing I don’t think carries “actual” meaning. The other, non-silly, half is that the only action you call the reader to is that of wondering things aloud, and then answering them, as if the mere act of doing so will stop the NSA, et al. dead in their tracks. What’s the plan here? Ponder, answer, ??????, profit?

  9. Douglas Muth

    My response to “I have nothing to hide” is usually “Okay then, give me your phone. Right now. I want to read your email. All of it.”

    People suddenly aren’t so sure of their beliefs after that.

  10. Carlos Caballero

    Thanks for an insightful and personal commentary, which leaves the reader with the awareness of the seriousness of the (now public) destruction of the 4th amendment (the current euphemism is “erosion of public liberties”, what an insidious framing…)

    However, the feeling of being threatened (in the public, private or social domains) sooner or later takes us to the question: “Everyone except us geeks seems to be doing OK with this, could it be that I am paranoid? Could it be that the right context to think of this is just in the abstract, discuss Orwellian writings, matters of algorithmic feasibility, trust in the proven inadequacy of “everything Government”, and so on? It would be so *comfortable* if we just could do that!”

    In the 70’s I was an activist in Argentina (yep, I am an old dude, sorry if I don’y fit the social demographics of your blog :). Based on the thread of a nebulously defined “communist subversion”, all civil liberties were “suspended” in 1977. In the six years that followed, 60,000 people were tortured, dynamited, thrown from planes and “disappeared” (official numbers say 30,000). That included pregnant women and seniors, babies and pretty much anyone who had something wanted by somebody else on the other side of “the wall”. Babies were given away to torturers to raise under different identities, families destroyed as a way of plundering their property, and institutions demolished.

    You may wander what “normal people” did while unidentified cars roamed the streets (the dreaded green “Ford Falcons”). While people were pulled out from their hair from houses almost demolished by guns. While one out of each 100 cars or so in the “road controls” were taking to the side and their occupants never seen again. What did people say when a bleary 28-year-old father, face full of bruises, knocked at their door at 2 AM asking them PLEASE to take the three-month-old child from their arms and take care of him, and not ask questions. What were those people saying to eliminate the cognitive dissonance of that awful reality?

    The answer (astutely institutionalized by the euphemism machine) was “Y… algo habrán hecho…” – Ask any Argentine about the phrase, you will see fleeting expressions of horror and guilt, just before some rationalization is presented to make it fit back into “normality”. The phrase could be translated into “OH WELL… THOSE GUYS MUST HAVE DONE SOMETHING…”

    History sadly repeats itself, all that changes is the euphemism to frame it: “They must have done something” has now become “Nothing to hide”. Let’s brace ourselves for the future…

  11. ben valentine

    I’m really glad that you talked about how this type of surveillance can promote latent (or not so latent) racist prejudice, and push us to act on it. Strategic surveillance totally gives dis-empowered people cause to worry, and it’s an uneducated and privileged position to think it doesn’t matter to you – it’s about what type of society we want. It’s no surprise to me that after the patriot act was signed, the government started unlawful monitoring of a non-violent Muslim programs inside the states after 9/11, it fed into suspicions and prejudices previously kept in check by due process. I also always remind people that our government was spying on martin luther king jr. and how can we justify that?

    I also wonder about the chilling effect it has on journalism and also culture writ large. How is creativity, art, and social relationships affected on a individual level within a surveilled environment? I bet many for many american muslims this affect was palpable post-9/11

    rant over

  12. Already targeted

    danah, you are absolutely right to point out that if someone is invested in making an innocent person look guilty, it is easy to do, especially via deploying racial bias.

    You need look no further than your own alma mater, UC Berkeley, and how they retaliated against the whistleblower who spoke out against documented racist bullying and hostile sexual climate violations that the Anthropology department and Berkeley administration covered up. I think the tactics used against this whistleblower will be of both personal and scholarly interest to you. All the more so now that Gloria Allred is suing Berkeley (along with Dartmouth, USC, and Swarthmore) for covering up sexual assaults and creating a hostile climate for female students.

    Because it was easy to smear and falsely accuse an innocent person, countless Berkeley and Dartmouth students needlessly suffered, as people refused to listen to a whistleblower who was telling the truth about how Title IX hostile climate complaints were being covered up by Denise Oldham and Berkeley’s compliance office (including via Berkeley professors and administrators conspiring to cover up the truth about how one known predatory misogynist and racist bully was recommended for a position at Dartmouth due to Berkeley’s cover-up of his documented abuse).

  13. Nicholas Theisen

    “the same media who tells them they have nothing to fear will turn on them if they happen to be in close contact with someone who is of interest to – or if they themselves are the subject of – state interest”

    Excellent piece, but the above actually undercuts your argument somewhat. Perhaps this is what you’re arguing in the long run, but the problem doesn’t actually seem to be “big data” itself but the capacity of some (over the vast preponderance of people) to broadcast their categorical judgments without any pushback. The likelihood that any prominent member of that media establishment would be subject to the same tar-and-feathering if they were seen to be related to a “person of interest” is quite low. The reason for this is they have access to the means of broadcasting their defense (as well as the collusion of those who see themselves as being in the same group) and thus can shout down any treatment of themselves that they regularly subject “ordinary people” to.

    Collusion and a sense of a media class as a sequestered if not segregated group really seems to be at the heart of all this. After all, the fact that AG Holder and Eric Clapper are “on the same side” is likely to result in Clapper’s escaping an indictment for lying before congress. After all, the information is there, despite what the DNI might say about the “least untruth,” to convict, but collusion assures that simply won’t happen.

  14. Laura

    I think you miss an important part. Yes, segregating your self creates tension against people who are not like you, but it also puts irrational trust into people who ARE like you, which is why the average person is not upset about this. They do not understand that the people doing this, DO NOT consider themselves just like anyone really. They consider themselves above it.

  15. Miller

    In the US today, people are not “innocent until proven guilty.” They are “guilty until proven innocent,” and even then they are still sometimes persecuted further. The burden is on you to prove your innocence, and that it extremely difficult when almost everything is a crime.

  16. Alexandru Cobuz

    I kind of agree with Laura, but I would like to mention that people are always different, you can’t expect them to understand you. In my example, I’m a web developer and there are many cases where i have to reformulate my ideas or shape them in order to make them accessible by some other people (like my cousins).
    And to what Miller said i kind of agree as well, as a certain case are the banks that you are considered “guilty until proven innocent”, where in the past it was the opposite. Things took a dramatic change, mostly due to someones greed or based on the evil around us.


    Very thought provoking post with a lot of great comments. This stuff should be a concern to all of us as it erodes our 4th amendment rights. The problem is how we are not forced to solve problems. When we go to an airport we have to have bags checked and be frisked. Why because our solution to terrorism is to take away freedoms from regular citizens. This is the model now used to solve these problems. It is just not right and erodes our freedoms, but most of just say “Oh, well we have to do this to be protected.”

  18. Fhalyshia

    My Ethics in a Digital World class has recently been talking about privacy and the ‘nothing to hide’ opinion, so I found this article very relevant to what I’ve been contemplating for the past few weeks. When my professor first posed the question “if you’re not doing anything wrong, then why are you so concerned about protecting your privacy?”, I knew in my heart that wasn’t right, but I had trouble verbalizing what exactly my reasoning for this was.
    After some thought, the main reason negating this theory that I came up with was simply that everyone deserves some amount of control over what they divulge about themselves. Just because you’re not doing anything wrong doesn’t mean you don’t deserve the right to choose what you keep to yourself and what is public information. No matter how minuscule the information, the fact that you choose to and can keep something to yourself is the most basic form of freedom there is.
    However, I hadn’t even considered the larger picture that you brought up in this post. This extrinsic view of privacy, that privacy is only valuable as a means to get away with something nefarious, can most certainly create feelings of distrust which could lead to larger societal problems like self-segregation and marginalization that you mentioned above. I agree that privacy should, for the most part and given the context of the situation, be seen as intrinsic in value and not questioned.

  19. Patrick

    I feel that we have become a society that expects the worse from people. There is no trust anymore just laws. Ever since 9-11 it seems as though our government has been increasingly invasive of citizen’s privacy. While they say that they do so out of necessity, it seems like they really just don’t trust their citizen’s anymore. America used to be about freedom and patriotism. Now it seems like it’s all about suspicion. I want to see an America like that again some day.

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