Sunday, August 24, 2008

Only the Guilty Have Something to Hide

The mayor of shuts down a stand where little girls sold excess produce from their family's garden (link).

TSA employees ground plane by using critical instruments as handholds (link).

A pilot is placed on the no-fly list, destroying his ability to do his job (link).

On their face, these incidents aren't obviously about data privacy and information security - the nominal topics of this blog. However, it's incidents like these that come to mind when I hear that privacy doesn't matter because only the guilty have something to hide. To me, the incidents above show that government action, even when the government is faithfully enforcing regulations or laws, can be unpredictable, and even people who never knowingly commit a crime could very well be "guilty" in the sense of incurring adverse government actions. Thus, to say that only the "guilty" have any reason to care about privacy shows a dangerous lack of awareness of how easy it is to violate some law or regulation and thereby become "guilty" yourself. Even worse, when the government goes about collecting enormous amounts of data without having to justify itself and without any oversight, there will inevitably be false positives which have the potential to literally ruin someone's life (e.g., a pilot who can't do his job because he gets added to a no fly list).

For this post I intentionally avoided cases where individual privacy is violated as a result of government lawbreaking (e.g., here, which describes an IRS employee who decided to peruse celebrity tax filings). The reason is that, while rogue employees are a problem, the attitude that only the guilty have any reason to value privacy is a problem even when the government is functioning as it is supposed to.

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