It's a lot like Kafka's "The Trial", except in "Traps", it starts out as a game where these retired lawyers convince a stranded man to play a game with them whereby they try to find him guilty of a crime - murder, in this instance. You may not have read "Traps" but you've probably read "The Trial" which is far grimmer and more possible.
The quote also follows the same reasoning as Cardinal Richelieu's "give me six lines written by an honorable man and I will find something in them with which to hang him."
And today, this sentiment is expressed as "If you've got nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear" regarding the increasing amount of surveillance under which we are living.
There are many good responses to people who tell you, "If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear", starting with, "Well, then I'd like your credit/debit card numbers and PINS", or "So, you don't have curtains on your windows? Nothing to hide, right?"
While these are fun retorts to those clueless people who support wiretapping, the massive data compilers, and all those CCTV cameras everywhere, it really is just a superficial treatment of the questions of privacy.
The digital data miners, for example, make it much easier for unscrupulous people to steal your identity, your credit information, and to make a shambles of your life that will cost you a great deal of money to right. I just received a letter from my insurance company now offering "identity theft" insurance that would pay for many of the costs associated with recovering your identity should it be stolen. That right there is a clue by four that we do, indeed, have "something to hide" - or more correctly, to protect and shield: our good name, our credit history, our personal finances.
It doesn't end there, either.
The data mining programs that red-flag keywords do so without context. I am a writer. I love researching and learning new things and finding new tidbits of information. I have read extensively on any number of topics concerning poison, meth labs, explosives, subversive techniques, doomsday survivalism, guns, weaponry, making your own weapons (I can make a nifty working crossbow out of a few pencils, a straw, some tape and a few rubber bands - and crossbow bolts for it from wooden barbecue skewers), how to vanish from society, how to counterfeit money, how to mint your own coins, and way, way more topics. I write about a lot of this, too. Without context, it would be extremely easy to red-flag me as a potential terrorist or criminal or something more dire.
And consider innocent actions - take that meth book I read. I read it for a story I was writing. Innocent enough. But then I get a cold a week later, and buy Sudafed. Suddenly, without context, it doesn't look so innocent any more, does it? Shades of Richelieu and "Traps"; a case could be made to turn me into a criminal!
What if those CCTV cameras recorded me parking every week for a few hours near a corner where prostitutes were known to hang out? Would the context that I was doing volunteer work in a shelter down the street ever be revealed? Or perhaps my old aunty lived in a ratty apartment right there and I was cooking up a week's worth of meals for her? Acting only on the history of me parking repeatedly where prostitutes hang out, in a relentless data mining for crimes program, I could be red-flagged, and then investigated.
The mere act of being investigated is enough to convince many people of my guilt - the whole "where there's smoke, there's fire" mentality, and people would say, "well, if she's innocent, why are they investigating her?" I could lose my job, my spouse, my family, my home, all on a red flag taken out of context, with no actual crime committed or intended. Condemned. For parking.
The "nothing to hide" argument is so one dimensional. Privacy isn't always or even mostly about hiding a wrong. It's not always about skeletons in your closet, or suppressing information about some crime.
Constant surveillance does more than inhibit free speech, freely making friends, and all kinds of other personal freedoms; it inhibits growth. When people under constant surveillance do something different, it's flagged for suspicious behavior. It might be suspicious, but more often, it's a phase of learning, of adding to their interests. If they get questioned for doing something a little different - or even a lot different - it makes them think about expressing themselves in the future, prevents them from exploring or expanding their interests. People cling to routines and "appearing normal".
And then there's the issue of aggregating the data without proper context. That parking issue I mentioned above, or the meth book example. While they could be indications of potential criminal activity, more often, they are perfectly innocent. The harm done by this type of surveillance and the reckless aggregation of unrelated data is primarily bureaucratic - error, abuse, leaking the information to our detriment, being hacked by criminals, frustration, a lack of explanation and transparency - take the infamous No Fly Lists.
The No Fly List is a very modern non-fictional form of bureaucratic harm - completely innocent people are placed on this list with no clue how they got there and no real and reasonable recourse for getting off of it. There's no responsibility, no accountability in this anonymous and indiscriminate collection of personal data. You are excluded from the process, no more than a pawn. You don't even get to know you're on the No Fly list until after you've spent your money buying a plane ticket and try to board a plane. You get subjected to humiliating questioning, possibly even spending time at the police station over it and you're out the price of the ticket and you get to be absent from important things like the birth of your grandbaby or the chance to secure a new client - and maybe even out of a job, if your job relies on travel. If you're not some wealthy or famous person, you may never be removed from this list, curtailing forever your ability to work, to visit family and friends, to take vacations, to even move about within the borders of your own country without being harassed, delayed, or imprisoned, with your personal items being confiscated, and being treated as a criminal. Even if you are wealthy or famous, it's a long grueling process to be removed. As far as I know, no one has actually been removed from that horrible list.
With this proliferation of data, perhaps your employer would learn something about you that you aren't ready to reveal, perfectly innocent information that isn't generally any of their business - an adoption process or pregnancy, perhaps, or treatment for possible cancer. Maybe you plan to share that information - in your own way at a time and place of your choosing. What if you'd had miscarriages before and didn't want to reveal the pregnancy until you were positive it would "take"? You have the right to withhold information that could hurt you - there's no crime in keeping a pregnancy secret, at least, not yet.
There's a power imbalance between the people collecting (or ordering the collection of) the data and the people whose personal data is being collected. The data can be twisted and distorted to suit the needs of the group collecting the data and it ignores important details, especially if the collectors try to force the data into set formats. Names are a good example. I have a long and complicated name (53 characters long), and there's not one single government form that allows my entire name to be on it. Ditto for my children. My father had to simplify his name when he joined the Army, and the same for my children who joined military organizations. My driver's license doesn't bear my proper name on - not enough room. Data distortion. I am not the person all these government forms say I am.
Don't even get me started on typos! And now, with autocomplete functions on computers and autocorrect and autospelling - ye ghods, the incorrect data being collected? It's worse than my bad hearing!
Privacy is lost in small increments, a slippery slope.
And then we get issues like that policeman who cited a 3 year old for peeing in his own yard in Piedmont, OK. Satellite surveillance spies on us in our own backyard leading to skinny dippers in private pools behind high privacy fences to dive or dash for tree cover or not eve skinny dip in the first place. We aren't free from surveillance even inside our own homes - with heat revealing surveillance cameras, law enforcement type people and other government agencies can peer inside your home to see how many people are in there and where they are - just by driving down your street. How many times have you been "seen" inside your home from such surveillance? You don't know because you didn't know the data was being collected. And with sound pick ups that can target specific areas and transmit the sound back to the collector even through brick walls, private dinner conversations or pillow talk can be recorded from a car parked across the street - and you'd never know.
What happens when some government agency - or worse, a computer program! - thinks your credit card purchases are odd and freezes your account just as you receive your paycheck and your bills are due? You could lose your home, and even your job in the effort to find out what happened and attempting to get it corrected -assuming it doesn't end up like that No Fly List where you have no way to find out why they froze your accounts or any reasonable way to unfreeze them!
And then there's the whole issue of identity theft - how easy the government data aggregators make that! It could be accidental, a computer glitch, and your financial life is ruined.
There are lots of things people hide that are not criminal, not wrong, and certainly not illegal - being gay, one's religious leanings, one's finances, one's age, being pregnant, being sick, planning a surprise party, loving someone (especially if that someone is the object of unrequited love), and mare. All of these have valid reasons for not sharing, and none of those reasons have anything at all to do with national security, criminal activities, or even just naughtily wrong.
And then there are hundreds of obsolete laws on the books; some are outdated, some are poorly written, some were written for special interest groups that no longer care or exist - like the law that forbids women from washing their own hair in Oklahoma City. What if the government decides to enforce that law? Suddenly every woman in Oklahoma City is a law-breaker. It's a classic Cardinal Richelieu situation.
Privacy entails many things - the need for refuge, the desire to experiment and try out new things without prying (and censorious) eyes on us, the attempt to master a new skill to spring full-blown and fun on family, friends, co-workers, or the knowledge that something you love is something you just are not good at doing (dancing, singing, for example) that you don't want anyone else to see you do or even know that you love it, but that you do when you are private.
What if the rules change? If you give permission for hidden surveillance cameras in homes where child abuse is suspected, for example, once the cameras are there, it's a simple matter to expand the parameters of observation from potential child abuse to other supposed crimes to just general voyuerism and data collection. You will eventually be caught doing or saying something that can be interpreted as criminal. Cardinal Richelieu strikes again! Any surveillance permission must absolutely be viewed in a worst case scenario because there will, beyond doubt, be someone who will abuse it.
Under constant surveillance, you don't get to decide what it is you fear. You might not even know it's something you have to fear until it's too late (the example of parking near a prostitute-frequented corner I gave above). And that's even assuming the data-collectors have the right data - no typos, no transpositions of numerals. Police raids happen far too often nowadays in homes where they have the wrong address. Paramilitary style police burst into innocent homes, threaten the bewildered family, terrify the children, kill the family pets in front of horrified eyes, and then, when they finally realize they are in the wrong place, they leave without apology, leaving behind shattered doors and lives - all because they got their data wrong. A typo. A transposed number. And it doesn't happen to just "those people" (whomever your bigoted prejudice targets, usually poor people, gays, Blacks, Latino/as, Native Americans, single parents...), it happens to middle class families, to city mayors, to legislators. One typo, and your home could be legally invaded, your family terrorized, and your home's defenses breached and destroyed, and you have no recourse, no apology, no offer of repairs for the damage done. Because even though you may appear innocent at that time, the data collectors know it's only a matter of time before they find something you've done that could be criminal.
We are all guilty, and there is no way to prove our innocence under constant surveillance.
If we didn't need privacy, we wouldn't have doors on public bathroom stalls, we wouldn't hang curtains in our homes or have doors to our bedrooms. We wouldn't have locking diaries. There would be no jobs making keys. There would be no passwords. No surprise parties.
And what if the "criminal" is the one who is morally right? Think of the civil rights movements we've had. Would those have happened under the degree of surveillance we have today? If we know we're being watched, and we know a law is wrong, will we be able to band together to break that law? Look at the Occupy movement, and the recent election we just had, and consider them happening under the restrictions several states tried (are trying) to impose. What about the laws against gay marriage and the increasing restrictions on abortion - which, by the way, is still legal? Would we have gotten as far in our civil rights battles without privacy to plan and coordinate the marches, the dissemination of information to trusted parties, and the concerted efforts to shield and protect the former slaves, the Native Americans, the women, the children?
If we're afraid, if we aren't allowed to know when a data miner collected something that will be red-flagged and our lives disrupted, will we ever be able to grow as a society?
That, that's what is wrong with the "if you have nothing to hide" argument.
We have only our future to fear if we aren't allowed to maintain our personal freedoms and privacy.