The most common defense for the massive expansion of government surveillance programs since 2001 is that they only negatively affect people who have something to hide. In a recent TED Talk, Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who first published documents leaked by Edward Snowden, made the case that the government's invasions of privacy have a much broader effect than catching and curtailing terrorist or criminal activity.
Greenwald argued the people who claim they have nothing to hide don't actually mean it. He pointed to Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as examples of powerful people who previously defended government and corporate invasions of privacy but have also taken steps — refused to talk to some media, or bought massive properties to make outside snooping more difficult — to protect themselves from peering eyes.
"All of us have things to hide," Greenwald said. "There are all sorts of things that we do and think that we're willing to tell our physician or our lawyer or our psychologist or our spouse or our best friend that we would be mortified for the rest of the world to learn."
Greenwald has devised a challenge for people that tell him they don't worry about their privacy because they have nothing to hide: He asks them to send him all their email passwords and allow him to look through and publish anything he finds interesting. "After all, if you're not a bad person, if you're doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide," Greenwald quipped. "Not a single person has taken me up on that offer."
Greenwald pointed to the empirical literature that found people are much more likely to conform — and therefore less likely to challenge authority, even when such protests are warranted — if they know they're being watched by others.
"Even if you're somebody who decides you never want to [challenge authority], the fact that there are other people who are willing to and able to resist and be adversarial to those in power — dissidents and journalists and activists and a whole range of others — is something that brings us all collective good that we should want to preserve," Greenwald said. "We can try and render the chains of mass surveillance invisible or undetectable, but the constraints that it imposes on us do not become any less potent."