If you have nothing to hide, you still have something to fear

Defenders of the NSA, TSA, PATRIOT Act, etc. like to say that "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." Three stories show the fallacy of that statement.

First, is a survey from the Pew Research Center showing that only 42% of Americans are willing to discuss their views of the National Security Agency (NSA) on social media. Pew attributes this to a general unwillingness of people to discuss views that others might find controversial online. This is probably a part of the reason so many people are unwilling to post their opposition to NSA spying on Facebook or Twitter, but can anyone doubt that some people might be reluctant to criticize the NSA, or other government agencies, online because they are fearful that their comments will offend  a government bureaucrat. The IRS targeting of "tea party" groups shows that these fears are well-founded.

One reason the surveillance state makes people fearful to express opinions that may get them on the bad side of government bureaucrats is the "if you see something, say something" mentality encourages government officials--and private citizens-- to assume that everyone is a criminal. For a particularly nauseating example, see this story from Reason's "Hit-and-Run" blog:

Every summer for the past 14 years, Jeff Gates has taken a picture of his two daughters hugging on a ferry boat as they travel to their summer home on the Jersey Shore. This year, as he was completing the annual ritual, a stranger came up to him and said, “I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if you were okay.”

He was talking to the daughters. It took a minute before Gates realized what the stranger meant by the comment. As he recounts in The Washington Post:

At first none of us understood what he was talking about. His polite tone and tourist attire of shorts, polo shirt and baseball cap threw us off. It took me a moment to figure out what he meant, but then it hit me: He thought I might be exploiting the girls, taking questionable photos for one of those “Exotic Beauties Want to Meet You!” Web sites or something just as unseemly. When I explained to my daughters what he was talking about, they were understandably confused. I told the man I was their father. He quickly apologized and turned away.

Even worse is the Homeland Security agent's reaction when confronted:

Gates and his wife had adopted the girls from China, making the Gates a mixed-race family. Should that automatically set off warning signals? Gates thought no. So, after a time, he tracked the man down and confronted him:

I walked outside to where he was standing and calmly said: “Excuse me, sir, but you just embarrassed me in front of my children and strangers. And what you said was racist.”

The man didn’t seem at all fazed. He replied: “I work for the Department of Homeland Security. And let me give you some advice: You were standing there taking photos of them hugging for 15 minutes.”

And there we have it: He's from Homeland Security. He is paid by the government to suspect the very worst at all times and butt in.

When the government is telling Americans that we should be on guard against everyone, everywhere, at all times ("If you see something, say something"), it might start to seem plausible—likely, even—that a sex trafficker would take photos of his sex slaves, in public, for 15 minutes. In reality, of course, that's absurd.

So if you are accused of being a sex trafficker because a federal agent thinks you’re are spending too much time photographing your children well that is your fault because...... And if you have nothing to fear, you have nothing to hide.

Finally, a reminder of the potential that surveillance powers can and will be abused. Another entry from Reason's "Hit-and-Run" blog deals with new revelations about how then-President Lyndon Banes Johnson, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover investigated actor George Hamilton when the actor started dating one of LBJ's daughters. Of course, Hoover was notorious for his files on politicians, celebrities, and other prominent people, and for using the files to maintain his hold on power. Imagine what Hoover could have done with today's technology--and increased acceptance of the need for government to spy on us. But if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from future J. Edgar Hoovers right......right?



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