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The Subjective Nature of ‘Nothing to Hide’

Whether you have something to hide has far more to do with who is looking than what they can see.

I read a marvellous article by Dan Arel titled Hide Nothing. I usually find myself aligned with Dan’s columns on privacy, as he takes a very practical approach. Not everyone has the same threat profile and thus not everyone needs to live their life as though they are Edward Snowden. However, one underpinning aspect of the article struck a discordant note:

… his [Jeffrey Burrill] personal life was not harming others and was just that, his personal life.

The challenge with this statement is that it runs the risk of a category error, in first asserting that someone is not causing harm, and then observing that in any event, one’s personal life should be off limits to public scrutiny. As Daniel Conway correctly notes:

healthy’ self-creation is never strictly private… [because it involves] a Dionysian element of excess or superfluity which cannot be contained to a private sphere.

Daniel W. Conway, Nietzsche & the Political (New York; London: Routledge, 1997), p. 129.

Strip aside esoteric concepts like ‘Dionysian’ and what Conway is arguing is that what I do in my private life — the beliefs I hold, the actions I take, the decisions I make — will always seep into my public or communal behaviour.

To take a banal example, if I am a committed and inveterate eater of asparagus in my private life, my public political views will inevitably be coloured in that I am unlikely to vote for any political party that seeks to ban the eating of asparagus. In this sense, my purely personal life of eating asparagus, that I do not share with other people either physically or by posting about it online, motivates my communal decisions and actions.

Moving beyond motivations, there is then the separate issue of harm. At face value, we all know harm when we see it and are likely clear on what constitutes harm. But just like a personal life, definitions of harm are more correctly moral than they are ethical. That is, morality as a general system of thinking bound to a specific society, and ethics as as a supra-societal system.

In this context, what causes harm is highly correlated to the society in which you live. One person’s support is another person’s harm. An example of this is currently playing out in the ongoing Roe v Wade battles in the United States, with both sides trying to take the moral high ground, labelling the other as causing harm.

Thus I think a better route to argue against the erosion of privacy than to assert no harm or that actions revealed are purely personal, is to look at things from the lens of ‘in the public interest’ and ‘of interest to the public’.

Whether I am gay or straight, black or white, conservative or liberal, might be of considerable interest to the public. But revelation of these things is not in the public interest unless it has a direct bearing on my communal actions.

This will likely send a shiver down many people’s spines because it seems to suggest that if something has public consequences, then suddenly that which was purely personal ought to become a matter of public record and debate. But that is the nature of community; the personal is seldom ever strictly personal, with private and public sharing a symbiotic relationship.

In this context, privacy matters — and one does well to use services that are privacy respecting. But the overall nature of the society in which you live is a bigger driver of your right to privacy and personal liberty than whether what you deem to be purely personal can be kept secret from the public gaze.

After all, whether you have something to hide has far more to do with who is looking than what they can see.


Photo by Taras Chernus on Unsplash.

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