A commentator on my recent post about the DEA installing license plate scanners on the nation’s interstate highways asks, “If you aren’t doing anything illegal why would you care if someone captures your license plate number?”
Another commentator countered: “If I’m not doing anything illegal, why do the police need to record my license plate number?”
It’s a great response. In essence, it points to our civilization’s core principle that the government is not supposed to look over our shoulder unless it has particularized suspicion that we are involved in wrongdoing.
But the original poster’s point is a frequent refrain: “Why should I care about surveillance if I have nothing to hide?” As a privacy advocate I have heard this question for many years, and over time developed my own list of answers, aided by the sharp thinking of others who have grappled with this question, such as Dan Solove and Bruce Schneier.
Here are the answers to this question that I have settled upon over time:
Some people do have something to hide, but not something that the government ought to gain the power to reveal. People hide many things from even their closest friends and family: the fact that they are gay, the fact that they are sick, the fact that they are pregnant, the fact that they are in love with someone else. Though your private life may be especially straightforward, that should not lead you to support policies that would intrude on the more complicated lives of others. There’s a reason we call it private life.
You may not have anything to hide, but the government may think you do. One word: errors. If we allow the government to start looking over our shoulders just in case we might be involved in wrongdoing—mistakes will be made. You may not think you have anything to hide, but still might end up in the crosshairs of a government investigation, or entered into some government database, or worse. The experience with terrorist watch lists over the past 10 years has shown that the government is highly prone to errors, and tends to be sloppily overinclusive in those it decides to flag as possibly dangerous.