"Nothing to hide, nothing to fear"? Two Retorts

One of the most pernicious, lazy and irritating arguments for mass surveillance is “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”.  I’ve dealt with cursory responses to this before: “Why do you have curtains, then?” is the best short response, in my opinion.

But behind the glib cliche is a more subtle argument.  Politicians, in arguing for surveillance, seek to reassure us that the powers they seek (and have recently awarded themselves) would never be used against ‘ordinary’ people.  They hope that we have forgotten Paster Neimoller’s ‘And Then They Came For Me’ poem… or that we assume it does not apply to us.  They want us to believe that their power of surveillance is so they can keep an eye on other people.  In this manner, the public consent to more powers, and barely notice when the security services abuse these powers to attack the free press.

Here are two sophisticated arguments against even responsible governments having mass surveillance powers.  First, the philosopher Quentin Skinner, in conversation with journalist Richard Marshall.  I quote at length without apology:

The idea that there is no problem with surveillance as long as you have nothing to hide simply points to the complacency of the liberal view of freedom by contrast with the republican one. The liberal thinks that you are free so long as you are not coerced. The republican agrees, of course, that if you are coerced then you are not free. But freedom for the republican consists not in being free from coercion in respect of some action, but rather in being free from the possibility of coercion in respect of it.

When William Hague told the House of Commons that no one has anything to fear so long as they have done nothing wrong he was missing an absolutely crucial point about freedom. To be free we not only need to have no fear of interference but no fear that there could be interference. But that latter assurance is precisely what cannot be given if our actions are under surveillance. So long as surveillance is going on, we always could have our freedom of action limited if someone chose to limit it. The fact that they may not make that choice does not make us any less free, because we are not free from surveillance and the possible uses that can be made of it. Only when we are free from such possible invasions of our rights are we free; and this freedom can be guaranteed only where there is no surveillance.

I think it very important that the mere fact of there being surveillance takes away liberty. The response of those who are worried about surveillance has so far been too much couched, it seems to me, in terms of the violation of the right to privacy. Of course it’s true that my privacy has been violated if someone is reading my emails without my knowledge. But my point is that my liberty is also being violated, and not merely by the fact that someone is reading my emails but also by the fact that someone has the power to do so should they choose. We have to insist that this in itself takes away liberty because it leaves us at the mercy of arbitrary power. It’s no use those who have possession of this power promising that they won’t necessarily use it, or will use it only for the common good. What is offensive to liberty is the very existence of such arbitrary power.

Lisa Nandy MP gave a speech yesterday that makes a similar point—perhaps more succinctly:

What about the need for the state to protect us? Especially now when we feel under attack, as Roosevelt once said, from without and within. In recent decades we’ve extended surveillance beyond anything Orwell could envisage in 1949. And in my view it’s undeniably a restriction on our liberty, but not because someone is reading my emails, but because they could. And that’s why the proper limit of power is so important, because if I’m subjected to the arbitrary use of power, I am not free.

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