Monday, May 16, 2011

"Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have 'Nothing to Hide'"

The May 15 2011 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education includes an excerpt from Daniel J. Solove's new book, Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security (Yale University Press), tackling a common response governmental gathering of personal information:
"I've got nothing to hide," they declare. "Only if you're doing something wrong should you worry, and then you don't deserve to keep it private."
He points out that even people who have nothing to hide - because they have not committed any crimes, or done anything they are ashamed of - still would not care to have all of their private information made public. The nothing-to-hide argument is based on "the underlying assumption that privacy is about hiding bad things." It's about hiding bad things, but that's only one aspect. It's also about privacy - the ability to have a life that is not entirely on public view.

Solove identifies several harms that can arise from invasions of privacy.
  • When not-particularly-revealing data from multiple sources are combined, the aggregation can reveal more than the bits reveal on their own.  
  • Exclusion is characteristic of much data gathering; individuals are excluded from when they are "prevented from having knowledge about how information about them is being used, and when they are barred from accessing and correcting errors in that data." 
  • Related to exclusion is secondary use (sometimes called "re-purposing"), in which data gathered with one object in mind are used for another purpose. In the context of government surveillance, secondary use "can paint a distorted picture, especially since records are reductive—they often capture information in a standardized format with many details omitted."
Almost everything he says in this short, readable, and useful essay can also be applied to commercial data collection. I'm guessing his book is a good one.

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

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