Following the unfolding story surrounding Edward Snowden’s NSA intelligence leaks, I’ve encountered a frequent and frustrating argument used by people to support their apathy: “I don’t have anything to hide!” It’s barely an argument; more a statement of defiance. Ironically, this sentiment aligns with the unbroadcasted reasoning behind the NSA’s actions (and the existence of PRISM, the perpetuation of the Patriot Act, the FISA court, etc.); namely, that good citizens have nothing to hide and therefore nothing to fear. (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was its ugly cousin). That we are willing to go along with this narrative in exchange for marginal increased safety reveals an inherent flaw in people’s understanding of privacy – one that is not surprising given our current rewards-based culture. Americans have become so accustomed to receiving privileges for good behavior (and conversely, punishments for bad behavior) that we seem to have forgotten the difference between a privilege and a right. A privilege is a temporary, conditional benefit given by someone in power to a limited population. A right is an unconditional and fundamental component to personhood that exists equally regardless of class, caste, sex, gender, station, etc. The problem with confusing rights for privileges is that privileges, by nature, can be taken away.
Along with Civil Rights; women’s rights; gay rights; and every person’s right to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” the right to privacy is also described in the United States Constitution as self-evident and unalienable. This means that regardless of those who might try to convince us otherwise -- and regardless of who forgets -- these things cannot be taken away since they are inherent to personhood. The government, therefore, is not the arbiter of our rights. Just as they cannot truly take them away, they cannot truly grant that which already belongs to a person. The role of government, then, is simply to safeguard these “unalienable rights” against anyone who would threaten their equal distribution and enforcement.
The Fourth Amendment states it is
“the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
I am an upstanding American citizen. I do not have anything to hide. I voluntarily put information on Facebook and use Skype to talk to my friends and family, none of whom are a threat to national security. So why am I bothered by it?
Because I am an upstanding American citizen according to what is considered terrorism right now, and right now only. If Congress, the Supreme Court, and/or the President see my rights only as privileges, I have no guarantee that tomorrow the criteria for receiving such privileges will not change. It is impossible for anyone to have true freedom if some in a society are simultaneously being denied it. Partial denial of rights to some belies a larger mindset of confusion regarding rights vs. privileges. If one group can be denied, violated, spied upon, or discriminated against based solely upon the unregulated discretion of their government, then any group can (if the narrative fits). There are justifiable exceptions. We assent to this in cases of incarceration, where a person has violated the accepted terms of living in a society. But they are exceptions precisely because the norm is freedom.
All genocide, all separation of people groups, all demonization begins with the systematic revocation of rights according to what a government believes is in the best interest of its people. It begins gradually and in secret, always with the illusion that people still have their rights, and usually under the mantra that some small thing must be sacrificed for the greater good. Jews in Germany – legal citizens, some decorated World War I veterans, business owners, members of their communities, etc. – were initially not allowed to have bicycles, pets, be out past a curfew, or walk in public without ID papers before being stripped of citizenship and all other human rights. The gradual implementation of offenses committed against them might not seem entirely objectionable today if they were justified as being done in service to the needs of the nation. We might even go along willingly:
“I don’t know how to ride a bike anyway, so what’s it to me?” and
“My neighbor’s dog barks late into the night and annoys me; it’s a good thing!” and
“I don’t have anything to hide!” and
“I’m proud of who I am; I don’t care if they know my family history!” and
“I’m a citizen who fought for this country!”
But even in cases where willing suspension of rights occurs, it must not exist indefinitely. The longer a government has power, the less likely it is to remember that such power must be returned, and the less likely it will be to voluntarily relinquish control back to its people. Incremental gains in safety may be achieved, but at what cost to privacy? So far, it seems the freedoms that have been exchanged are not proportional to the amount of safety we have received in return. The government can always ensure its protection of the rights of its own people; it can never guarantee complete safety. No government has the power to control others, or predict what other people or countries might do; it cannot say that something will “never” happen, even with the most powerful military in the world. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is proof of that.
Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei recently wrote a piece for The Guardian in which he shared his thoughts about the revelation of PRISM’s existence:
“I lived in the United States for 12 years. This abuse of state power goes totally against my understanding of what it means to be a civilised [sic] society, and it will be shocking for me if American citizens allow this to continue. The US has a great tradition of individualism and privacy and has long been a centre for free thinking and creativity as a result.”