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Jun 25 / Great Apes

Even If You Have Nothing To Hide From Your Government

One of the most common responses to the kinds of mass surveillance done by the NSA is the idea that if you have nothing to hide from the government (ie. you aren’t a criminal or a terrorist) then you shouldn’t have anything to worry about and you shouldn’t mind being spied on.  I’m working on a more long-form piece on the NSA surveillance, but for now I want to address that idea.  Let’s say that it’s true that you really don’t think there’s any reason to be concerned about your own government constantly spying on you; even granting that, there’s no good reason to believe that the information will only ever be seen by agents of your own government.

For one thing, a large amount of this kind of work is done in part by private companies like Booz Allen and Palantir.  Do you trust those private companies to have all that information about you?  I think it’s much less likely that you trust them than the government, but maybe you do trust them, but there’s an even bigger question to be asked: why do you believe that the information won’t extend past them?

It took only one intelligence officer (Bradley Manning) to leak a huge trove of secret information on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as well as a large number of secret U.S. diplomatic cables.  If it only takes one soldier to release that kind of information, why would you believe the NSA/FBI/CIA’s massive surveillance databases are safe from leaking as well?  And it’s not just military documents that have been leaked, as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists somehow received a huge volume of personal financial information (only some of which they released publically) on individuals and companies hiding money in tax havens.  That sensitive financial information was supposed to be secure and private as well, but it got leaked too.

Then there’s Edward Snowden, the man responsible for leaking info on U.S. and British surveillance that’s spawned an ongoing series of stories in The Guardian and elsewhere; Snowden was supposedly just a system administrator for private contractor Booz Allen, yet he was able to get access to information such as a secret court order requiring Verizon to hand over huge amounts of customer data to the NSA on a daily basis.  If a simple sys admin like Snowden can get access to that kind of information about U.S. surveillance efforts, why would anyone believe that others, possibly with more nefarious intentions, couldn’t also access the NSA’s information?

Given the ongoing history of leaks and the seemingly insecure nature of so much data, I think the idea that you shouldn’t care about surveillance because you have nothing to hide from your own good, democratic government misses the mark.  Even if you trust your own government to be constantly spying on you, it’s pretty plausible that the information could easily wind up in other hands.  That could mean public leaks of the surveillance data or it could mean that it’s stolen and sold to some other source (such as Russia or China).  Even if you’re fine with your own government collecting this data on you in theory, you should still be against it in practice because it could very easily be seen, accessed, and used by less well intentioned actors.

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