Tom Atlee: Nothing to Hide? NSA Can Still Strip Search You Electronically…

Cultural Intelligence
Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

Navigating a Web where “nothing to hide” doesn’t help you or democracy be safe

Having nothing to hide is no guarantee of avoiding trouble due to NSA surveillance, which can create an environment of fear, a suppression of cultural creativity, and opportunities for politically targeted suppression, generally degrading democracy.  The erosion of privacy can be addressed in a number of ways, including turning the tables on power centers and changing our online behavior.  Enforcing openness in government and corporations and using search engines that are more immune to surveillance not only strengthen democracy but reduce social fragmentation.  Guidelines for online privacy and alternative search engines are included here.


A common response to complaints about the erosion of privacy – especially the NSA’s growing surveillance – is that people shouldn’t worry if they have nothing to hide. This might be more true if governments, corporations, and ordinary people always acted in the best interests of everyone else. But often they don’t – and they can cause real damage to innocent people, to whole communities, and even to the earth – like when governments and corporations claim activists who are trying to stop climate change are “terrorists”. Given the scope, complexity, and obscurity of the law, it can be used by unscrupulous people for surprise attacks that overwhelm individuals and silence societies, as delineated in this excellent WIRED article.

The rapid rise of technologies of communication, sharing, networking, and commerce has made privacy increasingly dubious. The increasing customization and convenience of those technologies has made them very seductive, speeding their adoption and their growing potential for abuse. More and more people are voluntarily submitting more and more personal information to hard drives in corporate enclaves and “the cloud”. It is almost like spending money using your credit card: It is much easier to do without thinking – and to spend too much – than when you pay with bills and coins. These are booby traps most people have stumbled into willingly – even eagerly – albeit obliviously.

Loss of privacy evolves from a minor risk and inconvenience into a legitimate public concern when power is involved – power that can wreck people’s lives, manipulate populations, suppress dissent, and control governments. Even when that capability is not being used – and we don’t yet know for sure how much it is being used – creating it leaves tremendous power in the hands of future abusers. History gives us abundant examples of collective insanity, corrupt power elites, shifting political winds, and other conditions that make abuse almost inevitable.

Few of us are “pure” in any sense of the word. Even if we were, the law is infinitely complex (see the provocative WIRED article), subject to abusive interpretation, and often cares little for purity. In fact, virtuous people are often targeted by governments, corporations, and nasty people. In a relatively free and affluent society – even if things are not as free or affluent as they seem – people take a certain amount of personal safety for granted. Those who are poor, marginalized, or live in blatant tyrannies know how provisional such safety can be. All it takes is a chance shift in the winds of politics or fortune and our presumed safety suddenly vanishes, leaving us in danger.

That’s why protesting secret surveillance – which is being done from both the left and right – makes sense. Even if our protests only slow the erosion of privacy they can, if loud and smart enough, significantly impede abuse. Conscientious citizens can and do increase the transparency of government and corporations by law, by hacking, by whistleblowing, and by supporting principled hackers and whistleblowers. Such actions reduce the power imbalances that have mushroomed during the erosion of privacy. Those who see the loss of privacy as an inevitable consequence of our technological developments will see such efforts to open up government and corporations as evolving “sousveillance” – the ability in a fully “transparent society” for everyone to see the important facts about everyone else – high and low – but where few abuse that capacity unfairly because of everyone else’s capacity to counterattack.

There’s another point worth mentioning here that’s important for democracy. In addition to surveillance power, the customization and convenience of sites like Facebook and Google feeds social fragmentation. What people see online begins to reflect what they already know and like, based on their prior searches, surfing, and purchases. Many people don’t realize that when they google “budgets” or “Afghanistan” or “shoes”, their results may look quite different from what their mother or co-worker sees when they google the same topics. We come to see and understand less and less about people and ideas that are different from us. This creates an almost automatic self-segregating dynamic online that parallels the physical ghettoization in the US in which people move to communities and neighborhoods that have similar demographics and worldviews to their own (a dynamic dangerously aggravated by recent epidemics of manipulative political redistricting known as “gerrymandering“). All these factors undermine our cultural sense of common ground and the common good.

One way we can each counter both the privacy issue and the fragmentation issue in our own lives is to use some of the search engines discussed below – search engines that don’t retain our personal data or search history. In the absence of customization, we get the same search results as everyone else for a given topic. And because the company in charge of the search engine retains no record of our searches, they have nothing to turn over to the authorities. Each of these search engines has its own pros and cons. However, using them, we may lose a bit of speed, convenience, and familiarity. Are the trade-offs worth it? That’s up to us.

But I think it is worth keeping in mind that the more more of us use such secure search engines, the better our collective user experience with them will be and the healthier our democracy can become… especially if we also do other things that will protect, strengthen, and transform that democracy.


PS: There’s also the issue of Facebook and other social networking sites. Because they are fundamentally ABOUT sharing information about ourselves, they are harder to to make fully secure if we want their services. Privacy in this case is usually limited to choosing what to disclose to whom (except the owners of the service and the government, who both have potentially full access), protecting the privacy of those around us or with whom we network, and protecting our identity from identity theft. Some privacy and security guidance for social networking is available at the following sites, among others:

PPS: Here is a quirky but informative article that helps with all sorts of security/privacy concerns while at the same time acknowledging their limits in the face of NSA’s PRISM – at least if one wants to do any electronic communication at all.

PPPS: Finally, here is an example of an Internet law that is broadly open to the kind of abuse discussed in the WIRED article – and action underway to change it.



Five Alternative Search Engines that Respect Your Privacy

Scroogle’s Gone? Here’s Who Still Offers Private Searching

Why privacy fears are driving people to DuckDuckGo

Please do yourself a favor and quit using Bing, Yahoo, Google, and AOL.