Facebook, Google and Nothing to Hide

I’ve been looking at my Facebook profile in the light of their recent decision to make members’ profile data indexable by Google and other search engines. Trying to make sense of what I thought about this, and about privacy in general, I found the works of Daniel J. Solove, associate professor of law at the George Washington University Law School. He specialises in privacy and its relation to information technology.

Looking at his list of publications, I thought I’d get a primer on his work by reading a short essay called “I’ve Got Nothing to Hide” and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy (240Kb PDF)

Anyone who’s interested in privacy issues needs to read this. I’ve always been frustrated by the “nothing to hide” argument, trotted out whenever somebody complains about privacy violations (I note it turned up in defence of CCTV cameras in a letter to Metro last week).

Solove’s essay clarifies the situation by showing that the “nothing to hide” argument concentrates on one very limited aspect of privacy (that of the right to hide things from scrutiny), and amongst other things, points out that because privacy violations are not seen as having serious consequences in the way that terrorist plots or other “real” threats do, it makes making concessions to things like surveillance very hard to resist. The false dichotomy between handing over privacy rights or being blown up by terrorists is exposed for the propaganda I’ve always thought it was.

On a less theoretical note, and to put our “terrorist threat” into perspective, I read the other day that by November 13, 1940, 150-200 tons of bombs were being dropped on London each day. The total came to approximately one million explosive devices killing about 40,000 British civilians in six months. Note that despite this, the British way of life did not collapse, we didn’t all end up becoming vegetarian Nazis, and the world, generally speaking, didn’t end.

Yet in 2007 we are supposed to be terrified of a handful of demonstrable idiots who pose about as much threat to our “way of life” as Nellie the Elephant. And that, by 1940’s standards, is despite 9/11. How can this warrant the response we’ve seen from our government?

Call me suspicious – but something ain’t right.