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“I have nothing to hide”: This is not about you. It’s about us.

“I have nothing to hide”: This is not about you. It’s about us.

By Dennis Loo (12/22/13)

In response to the news that the US government is in fact spying on all of our electronic communications, movements, habits and associations, and literally much of the rest of the globe’s activities, and thus exceeding even the fictional dystopias of authors’ imaginations, many Americans say that they “have nothing to hide.”

Much could be said about this commonplace response, and I have previously addressed it in articles (for example, here, here, and here) and in a YouTube short.

What I want to hone in on this time is from a different angle – the fact that “I have nothing to hide” is a rather sterling example of individualism in the face of a truly massive collective threat. You cannot deal with a collective threat by treating it as if it’s merely an individual issue.

What the “I have nothing to hide” retort misses entirely is that ubiquitous warrantless surveillance, the gathering, storage, and analysis of the entire contents of all of our electronic communications, silently destroys the ability of every one of us being able to think and act privately and without interference from Big Brother. If the government can gather up all of our communications – what we write in emails, in social media, in publications such as books, articles, and so on, our comments on threads, our cell phone and landline conversations, what we read online or check out from libraries, our financial transactions, and so on – then it has at its indefinite disposal the ability to crush any dissenters and resisters and silence through intimidation or direct repression free thinkers and whistleblowers of any kind.

Even if you are one of those people who thinks of themselves as utterly apolitical and therefore believe that you have nothing to fear from the government, now or ever, do you think that you will never have anyone in your family or among your friends, or any of your descendants, who will ever find themselves at odds with something that the government is doing? And what about all of those who are supposed to be the watchdogs over the government? Members of Congress, Judges, journalists, scholars, scientists, health care providers, military and police, and so on, are all charged with either being monitors of what the government and other authorities such as corporations and other private interests are doing, carrying out the orders of those in authority to use force against those who authorities have designated as “threats,” or whose jobs involve acting on behalf of the public good. What happens to those peoples’ ability to do that and act as guardians for the public interest if no one is any longer safe from the implied and explicit exercise of coercion by authorities? Do you think that your taking an “I have no problem with this” attitude should extend to everyone else now and forever? If that principle had been the principle governing society in the past, would Galileo - or any of the others - who broke with conventional thinking and what authorities such as the Church, monarchs, emperors or bureaucrats deem correct, have been able to advance humanity’s greatest interests - which run up against authorities’ desires to control what goes on and what people think and believe?

In other words, the very notion that one can deal with a collective threat by everyone making their own individual decisions about whether this bothers them as a single individual or not, is completely wrong and exceedingly dangerous.

For more on this, see Dave Eggers’ article “US Writers Must Take a Stand Against NSA Surveillance.”

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