Why You Have Something to Hide

Note: This article originally appeared on The Security Catalyst Blog.

If you have nothing to hide, why do you need privacy? This question, famously attributed to the McCarthy era, has gained currency again in this era of terrorism and national security. The question implies that privacy is a form of dishonesty, that the things people want to hide are the very things others should know about.

I admit that I bristle every time I hear someone say, “You have nothing to worry about if you have nothing to hide.” Baloney. I have everything to hide! When someone says, “I have nothing to hide,” it’s simply not true. What he really means is, “I have nothing to be ashamed of,” which may be true. But shame is only one, limited reason for confidentiality. Confidentiality is not an admission of guilt.

I have much to hide, for one simple reason. I cannot trust people to act reasonably or responsibly when they are in possession of certain facts about me, even if I am not ashamed of those facts. For example, I keep my social security number private from a would-be criminal, because I can’t trust that he’ll act responsibly with the information. I’m certainly not ashamed of my SSN. Studies have shown that cancer patients loose their jobs at five times the rate of other employees, and employers tend to overestimate cancer patients’ fatigue. Cancer patients need privacy to avoid unreasonable and irresponsible employment decisions. Cancer patients aren’t ashamed of their medical status—they just need to keep their jobs.

A person may share intimate secrets with an ecclesiastical leader that they would keep private from parents, because they fear the parents may not act reasonably or rationally when presented with the same information. During World War II, the government acted unreasonably and irresponsibly with Census data about the location of Japanese-American citizens. Privacy from government entities is paramount.

In addition, can you imagine how much damage you would impose on innocent people if you spoke every thought that came into your head? Or if doctors, lawyers, and accountants disclosed everything they knew about you?

The need for privacy is the recognition that most individuals, organizations, or institutions cannot be trusted to act reasonably, responsibly, in the best interest of the person, or in the best interests of society, when in possession of certain types personal information. Humans are biased. We have limited cognitive and analytical abilities, and never know all of the facts. We are infamously poor judges of character. We change our minds, and come to conflicting conclusions. So, the next time someone asks whether you have something to hide, do not hesitate to say, “Yes, of course I do.”

  1. #1 by Sheldon Wolfe on June 9, 2009 - 7:50 pm

    I admit I am guilty of the “I have nothing to hide” position, but, as you correctly say, it’s really “I have nothing to be ashamed of.” The problem is the word “hide”, which has a connotation of shame; perhaps a better way to say it is, “I have nothing to hide, but many things to protect.”

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