Free Minds & Free Markets

3 Reasons the ‘Nothing to Hide’ Crowd Should Be Worried About Government Surveillance

Most people think the federal government would have no interest in them, but many discover to their horror how wrong they are

So you say you like "Homeland," do you?Credit: Jbk_photography | Dreamstime.comResponding to a popular reaction to news of the National Security Agency’s massive data collection program, blogger Daniel Sieradski started a Twitter feed called “Nothing to Hide.” He has retweeted hundreds of people who have declared in one form or another that they are not concerned that the federal government may spy on them. They say they have done nothing wrong, so they have nothing to hide. If it helps the government fight terrorists, go ahead, take their civil liberties away.

In his blog, a frustrated Sieradski listed many of the abuses of power our federal government is known for; he is not happy with the "nothing to hide" crowd.

There are many, many reasons to be concerned about the rise of the surveillance state, even if you have nothing to hide. Or rather, even if you think you have nothing to hide. For those confronted by such simplistic arguments, here are a three counterarguments that perhaps might get these people thinking about what they’re actually giving up.

1. Every American Is Probably a Criminal, Really

That Americans think they have nothing to hide in the first place is a sign of how little attention they're paying to the behavior of our Department of Justice. Many Americans have run afoul of federal laws without even knowing it. Tim Carney noted at the Washington Examiner:

Copy a song to your laptop from a friend's Beyonce CD? You just violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Did you buy some clothes in Delaware because they were tax free? You're probably evading taxes. Did you give your 20-year-old nephew a glass of wine at dinner? Illegal in many states.

Citizens that the federal government wants to indict, the federal government can indict if it monitors them closely enough. That's why it's so disturbing to learn that the federal government doesn't need to obtain a warrant on us in order to get our emails and phone records.

Remember when comedians used to make fun of laws against removing mattress tags?Credit: Kostyantin Pankin | Dreamstime.comAttorney Harvey Silverglate even wrote a book about it, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. The Department of Justice has been notably and egregiously using federal laws to destroy lives. Former Tribune employee Matthew Keys is facing federal charges and possibly prison time because he gave his old password to a member of Anonymous, who changed a headline at the website for the Los Angeles Times. The vagueness of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act makes violating a website’s terms of service a possible felony. We’re not just referring to government websites. All websites. Given the digital focus of the PRISM program, everybody should be concerned about what could potentially happen should that data end up in the hands of federal prosecutors.

The “nothing to hide” crowd's involvement in political activism is likely limited. That’s perfectly fine. Nobody should feel obligated to join the Occupy movement or a Tea Party organization or be the kind of person who might end up on a politician’s enemies list. But to say “I have nothing to hide” is a fundamentally selfish declaration. What about parents, sisters, brothers, partners, and other loved ones? Can we say the same for them? You don’t have to have an illness whose suffering can be eased with the use of medical marijuana to be concerned about the way the federal government treats this industry. Would you say, “I don’t need medical marijuana so I don’t care if they imprison those who do”? Sadly, some people do. Fundamentally, saying “I have nothing to hide,” is similar to saying “I don’t care about those who do.”

Next: The problem with trusting the government.

Photo Credit: © Edward J Bock 111 |

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online