On a nothing to hiding…

I wasn’t going to write another blog post today – but some things really wind me up, and a particular trivialisation of the privacy debate comes very high on the list.

While I was still at Sun, and had some responsibility for online identity and privacy, I spent years dealing with the fall-out from Scott McNealy’s observation that “you have zero privacy… get over it”. Now, I wouldn’t wish the same fate on those Google employees who I know, because it doesn’t take long to get tired of the smug smirk on the faces of those who throw your chief exec’s remark back at you when you’re trying to argue for better privacy.

That said, I do think Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s recently-quoted remarks on privacy deserve a good deal of push-back. Whatever the full context – and I’m not assuming that that context is reflected in the press coverage – here’s the bottom line; no-one’s privacy interests are served by feeding the media with a sound-bite like this:

“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”

And he goes on to hide behind the petticoats of the Patriot Act, casually sliding past the notion that any of Google’s users might live in regulatory regimes with non-US privacy norms, and abdicating the kind of responsibility one might feel entitled to expect from a global corporation.

The real issue with Mr Schmidt’s remark is the way in which it trivialises the concept of privacy – thus ensuring that the issues just won’t get a serious airing. The point about privacy is not that it concerns those things you don’t want anyone to know: that is somewhere else on the scale… somewhere between secrecy and paranoia.

No: the point about privacy is that it’s about the things which you want to be known to some people, but not to others. If Eric doesn’t understand that, then Google deserves a far rougher ride on privacy issues than it has been given to date.

The broader problem – as other articles have observed – is that Mr Schmidt’s statement is basically a re-hash of the old chestnut that “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”. Again, no-one’s privacy interests are served by saying things which give even a grain of credibility to that ridiculous expression – unless you like your life to be run on the philosophical principles of the average Christmas cracker motto.

More specifically, here’s why that particular saw irritates me so much. “Having something to hide” expresses a relationship, not a state; you have something to hide from someone. If you’ve got nothing to hide from anyone, you probably don’t live what the rest of us would consider a normal life. Similarly, if you have “something to fear”, you have something to fear from someone.

Now – to spell it out for Mr Schmidt and the other “nothing to hiders”: I have nothing to hide from my bank about my bank account, and how I access it, and what I do with it. I have plenty to hide from a fraudster about my bank account, and how I access it, and what I do with it… and plenty to fear from a mugger who takes me to an ATM at knifepoint and demands that I withdraw cash. A relationship of healthy disclosure from me to my bank is not the same as a relationship of fear, coercion and exploitation with a mugger.

There’s a more insidious influence at work here, too. The idea that “if you have something to hide, you have something to fear” is founded on a presumption that “something to hide” is “something illegal”. It’s something you “shouldn’t be doing in the first place”; others have either a right to stop you doing it, or no moral responsibility to prevent your behaviour from being publicised. That seems to me to elide, quite dangerously, the distinction between what is illegal and what is merely shameful. At its worst, that attitude is intolerant, and culturally insular to the point of arrogance. If that’s the set of social norms Mr Schmidt wants to live by, he’s welcome to it… just as long as I retain the option to be elsewhere.