The argument that no law abiding citizen should have anything to hide, and so surveillance is okay is a deeply flawed one, but one which seems to be quite powerful and rarely properly debunked.
Many people simply respond with rather extreme cases, demanding answers to questions such as “can I see your credit card records then?” or “would you mind having cameras in every room of your house, including the bathroom?” These kinds of arguments are not that helpful, because they don’t show why some limited surveillance by government agents (police, secret services, even local councils) is not acceptable. The typical argument is that if some small loss of privacy (and privacy itself is a horribly undefined and vague word) then it should not be a problem for anyone not trying to conceal illegal behaviour.
Privacy is not really about hiding potentially bad things like crimes though. Humans are social creatures, and it is easily demonstrated that surveillance causes “chilling effects” – people change their lawful behaviour, despite not having done anything wrong or there being much theoretical likelihood of potentially embarrassing information being exposed to the public.
A good example would be the recent case involving Kevin Bankston, a smoker. Google has been photographing streets in the US and then allowing people to browse the photos on the web. Those who have nothing to hide should have no fear of this, since their lawful actions in public should not be a problem for them. However, Mr. Bankston has been keeping the fact that he was a smoker secret from his family, and Google exposed him. Smoking is perfectly legal, of course. In the UK similar schemes have been tried, such as allowing people to view local CCTV on their televisions at home.
Because of surveillance, people are often not willing to say or do things they otherwise might. That is not just a loss for the individual, it’s a loss for society as free speech and the free flow of ideas is harmed, as is freedom to engage in any lawful activity one chooses. For example, a person might wish to protest against the cult of Scientology, but doing so will certainly invite extra surveillance such as having CCTV cameras pointed at you and the police pointing cameras at you. The police could potentially monitor your phone calls or email, just to make sure you are not planning any illegal action.
Compare this with East Germany of Soviet Russia. Even people behaving legally were constantly monitored, which resulted in oppression of political expression and freedom. In theory, those people should have nothing to hide, but surveillance is akin to investigation and like it or not does affect the way people behave and think. Fear that information may be erroneously recorded or misinterpreted, saved and used against an individual at a later date is unfortunately both strong and real.
Much information gathered on individuals cannot be challenged or even viewed by that individual. The Police National Computer is an obvious example. It certainly contains many errors, but no individual has the right to examine the data held about them or to have errors corrected.
Worse still, technology makes aggregation – the combination of many small bits of information – much easier. People argue that giving up small items of information should not be of concern to someone with nothing to hide, but in combination these many small pieces can be used to build up a detailed picture of an individual, and infer even more. Such information is now being used to try and predict behaviour in the future, and it is pretty hard to refute potential future actions.
How data is handled and used is also a big issue. Taking national ID cards as an example, it is not clear who will have access to data on them and how it will be used. For example, should Blockbuster be allowed to require an ID card as the only acceptable proof of ID? How will NHS staff be prevented from checking to see if a particular person ever had an STD and leaking that information to the press or that persons friends?
What if you campaign in favour of choice for women seeking abortions, and your address is made known to pro-life campaigners who then turn up at your house to protest and harass you? You broke now laws, have nothing to “hide”, but expect a certain degree of privacy when it comes to private details such as address.
The question of oversight and accountability is key here. The government and acquire virtually any information they want if they can show good reason for needing it, such as investigation of a crime. The police have the power to obtain normally private information in certain circumstances, as do many other bodies for whom the information is pertinent (social benefit agencies, for example). The key is that generally they must show a non-trivial reason for needing the information, such as strong suspicion of a crime.