Dangers of the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ mentality

Note: This article is also available in Portuguese, translated by Anders Bateva.

With regards to the whole PRISM program recently unveiled by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, I had a discussion with someone a few days ago who still held to the view that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from the government. This blog post is mainly aimed at dispelling some of these myths that keep cropping up in these discussions.

Change in Government

One of the biggest problems with this argument is that the government isn’t this all-good, benevolent entity that most people think it is. They actively and purposefully violate their own laws regularly. Now governments always have claimed that they work in the best interest of the people (which is the thing they should do), but who guarantees to me that this will always stay this way? Who guarantees that the Dutch government for instance, won’t turn into a full-blown police state in 5 or 10 years time, the way the British government already has? GCHQ is even worse than the NSA, as they’re tapping over 200 fibre optic cables indiscriminately. Who guarantees to me that there won’t be a dictator in 10 years time, maybe elected in a fit of fear, who then grabs power and starts abusing it to the fullest? Many people seem to laugh at the suggestion, but the danger is still very real. We don’t know what will happen in the future so therefore we should instead be proactive, and make sure that when a malevolent government does come to power (which I hope not), it has as little influence over the lives of the people as possible. An interesting story about changing governments, and sudden abuse of power is the story of Jacob Lentz. Lentz was a Dutch civil servant who worked on setting up the national resident registration system and designed the new national ID cards during the Second World War. In the summer of 1940, Lentz was convinced that Nazi Germany would win World War II, and he worked very hard at creating a watertight system. His ID cards were notoriously difficult to forge, even better that the German variant, the Kennkarte, making the lives of the Dutch resistance members a lot harder. His system registered a lot of information about the Dutch citizens, religion among other things. This make it ridiculously easy for the Nazis, when they conquered The Netherlands in May 1940, to see who was of Jewish descent and who wasn’t. And we all know the unimaginable horrors that led to. Now, Lentz thought he had good intentions. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say. If Lentz had thought it through just a little bit, had thought of the possible consequences, he might have chosen a different path. He could have saved the lives of thousands of Jews, with little to no danger to his own personal safety, or his family’s.

ProfilingSurveillance: Nothing to hide?

Now, it’s important to remember that you as a citizen usually don’t get to decide what constitutes criminal or suspicious behavior or not. You usually have no say in this matter, and governments habitually move the goal posts during the game. The average Dutchman can be found in well over 5,000 different government databases (link in Dutch). Now, with this much data on 17 million people, the government is bound to make mistakes. Because of the vast amount of information, they have to pattern match and profile you. This often leads to mistakes. If you buy a bag of fertilizer, are you simply a gardener, growing marijuana in your attic or maybe even a potential terrorist? This seemingly innocent act can suddenly raise a lot of flags in the numerous interlinked government databases. These databases aren’t perfect, and more often than not are failing to register the critical bits of context that might explain your behavior. The danger that your actions are registered while missing a lot of context, should be reason enough why we shouldn’t want to expand the surveillance state any further.

Feature Creep

Then there’s the problem of feature creep. When the government proposes a new law that enhances the powers of the surveillance state, they are always keen to solemnly promise to the MPs that these powers will of course only be exercised under strict conditions and regulations, with proper, independent oversight, with a court order, et cetera. In the end, this is almost never the case, and even your common neighborhood cop suddenly has access to sensitive information about you. This is exactly what happened in the case of RIPA (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000) in Britain. This was an Act that was passed at the start of the War on Terror, expanding the powers of the British spooks significantly. (It’s interesting to note that a law expanding powers of the spooks has a name that seems to suggest that it seeks to regulate said powers) When it was passed into law, it was supposed to only be used by the spooks, while nowadays, local councils can exercise these powers as well. And this is happening in a lot of places. These dangers are very real, and we need to start speaking up, and start demanding proper oversight for the spooks and the rest of the surveillance apparatus. In the meanwhile, there are a lot of things we can do to at least make their work a bit more difficult. 🙂

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