AUGUST 31, 2021
WHEN I STARTED collecting my notes for this book review, Microsoft attempted to save the file to its OneDrive cloud, much as my scanner continually tries to upload my documents to its server. It is thus fair to say that I was more than primed to like a book that deals with technological encroachments on privacy and that confronts the ways in which we are encouraged, sometimes very strongly, to give up control over our personal data in the name of convenience and security.
Billed as “an accessible guide that breaks down the complex issues around mass surveillance and data privacy,” “I Have Nothing to Hide” takes on numerous “myths” on this topic, ranging from “smart homes are more secure” to “metadata doesn’t reveal much about me” to “teenagers don’t care about privacy.”
One of the main themes of the book is, unsurprisingly, the extent to which Americans are already under surveillance, whether they are aware of it or not, and often with little value attributed to their privacy. One of the early chapters recounts that when Samsung smart televisions were found capable of recording household conversations, a former CIA director baldly defended such capabilities on national television. Practices which, only a short time ago, would have prompted scandal and resignations, have become publicly defensible.
At another point in the book, author and attorney Heidi Boghosian details the capabilities of Amazon’s Ring. The Ring, of course, is the increasingly popular doorbell-plus-camera-plus-microphone device that notifies your phone when someone is at your door and lets you give them the impression that you are home when you are actually across town. If you subscribe to the Ring Protect plan, you can also save video and photos captured by the Ring to a phone, computer, or other device.
What is possibly less well known is that Amazon often cooperates closely with American police departments, some of whom even distribute the Ring to households at reduced prices. According to Boghosian, drawing on interviews conducted in her capacity as Law and Disorder host at Pacifica Radio, “[a]n interface allows police to access Ring cameras with the touch of a button. Users can opt out, but the unspoken message is that if you do, you’re a bad citizen, uninterested in helping to stop crime in your neighborhood.”
In other words, households may feel pressured to allow police access to what is often a street-facing front-door camera on a continuous basis. If enough households in an area agree to such usage, the neighborhood comes under de facto continuous police surveillance. Moreover, the Ring has twitchy motion sensors (you don’t need to ring the bell to be caught on camera) and can pick up front-door audio, potentially chilling, as Boghosian points out, conversations with political canvassers or other visitors (Amazon claims that its latest model includes audio privacy and better motion detection).
The manner in which such devices, while providing convenience and possible peace of mind, encroach on our privacy is an important topic that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention, especially considering that they often (like my scanner or Amazon’s new Sidewalk wi-fi-sharing program) work on an “opt-out” rather than “opt-in” basis. This book teems with such examples of surveillance and over-monitoring, often connected to current, or very recent, use-cases.
One discussion (under “Myth 4: We Should Worry about Government, not Corporate Surveillance”) focuses on “threat assessment” companies. The intentionally vague name might easily lead one to believe that these are businesses that help to secure inherently dangerous sites, such as chemical plants or gasoline storage. In reality, it refers to monitoring anyone deemed unfriendly to the “threat assessment” company’s client. Boghosian gives the (real-life) example of SeaWorld staff posing as animal rights activists and posting outlandish, inflammatory messages on social media in an effort to discredit activists’ complaints about SeaWorld’s treatment of animals. “Threats” in the “threat assessment” sense are not necessarily criminal acts (that we can all agree on), but can also include regular political speech (a right we all have) that must be counteracted before it can cause brand damage — not through the courts (bound by narrow laws), but unilaterally, with superior technology and firepower. “Money is Speech” finds yet another application.
Another chapter, entitled “Myth 6: Surveillance Drones Are Just for War,” describes the use of unmanned aircraft to monitor American cities. These drones fly high enough to record large segments of a municipality’s ground area in one frame, a practice that also makes them difficult for inhabitants to detect. However, the resolution of the footage is high enough that an observer can zoom in to the point where they can “distinguish one person from another.” The drones, which have already been used in Baltimore, essentially create a video of the entire city that can track nearly every inhabitant’s outdoor activities and store them for 45 days.
The purpose is to investigate serious crime, but it also amounts to a serious invasion of privacy. The drones also, if only incidentally, record, as Boghosian points out, “[e]veryone entering or exiting an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, union hall or political gathering.” Furthermore, “a lawyer’s or doctor’s office might be identified and catalogued. Or a drone could zoom in on and scan cars parked outside a medical facility or church and create a list of attendees in just seconds.”
It could, as a contributor to one of the few internet threads on this topic pointed out, also record activities in private spaces, like back gardens. Quite apart from all of the slightly embarrassing activities one could get up to in a back garden, it would seem very difficult to relax on your own property with the knowledge that you are being continuously recorded by security. How do we act when we know that we are always under observation? That anything we say or do could potentially be used against us at some future point, even if it isn’t supposed to be?
Bringing some of these underreported issues to a wider audience is a major contribution of the book, which is rounded out by further sections on the fallibility of biometric security (e.g., fingerprints and iris scans), metadata, and child protection.
Perhaps due to the book’s organization into 21 short chapters, it sometimes seemed difficult to pack some of its broader themes into the brief “myth-busting” schematic. Rather than focusing exclusively on current surveillance and technical possibilities, Boghosian leans into rather than away from the connections between technology and cultural and social institutions.
At times, this illustrates matters with heightened clarity. For example, “Myth 17: Teenagers Don’t Care about Privacy” makes the argument that teen brains simply aren’t mature enough to properly weigh the consequences of over-sharing to their peers on social media. Thus, appearing to have no regard for their own privacy is just one aspect of a recklessness associated with adolescence in general, and shouldn’t be taken to herald a new era in which all future citizens will care less about privacy. The teens of today may well be much more conscious of their privacy by the time they hit their 30s. It is a good argument and one that isn’t considered enough when analyzing young people and their supposed immutable behaviors. After all, we do not go around claiming that chocolate chip cookies are the wave of the future just because the treats are enormously popular among five-year-olds.
At others, however, the connection to social and cultural practices seems to obfuscate the main argument, especially as many of these practices are particularly prevalent in the United States, but less so in other countries, despite the availability of identical technology.
For example, Boghosian mentions the pressure Americans feel to agree to let police access their Ring’s video feed, as not doing so could lead one to be viewed as a “bad citizen.” While it is plausible that such a scenario could play out in the United States, in most other Western nations, it does not cross one’s mind to care terribly much about local police opinion. However, even absent that pressure, it is still an uncomfortable thought that neighbors equipped with Rings could also, if, again, only incidentally, be capturing your front yard 24/7 on Amazon’s computing. The core issue continues to exist quite apart from other abuse or pressures.
The interplay between technology and racial discrimination is also a frequently recurring theme, in particular the way technology can be used to facilitate racial profiling (for example, people of color are more likely to be reported as exhibiting “suspicious behavior”).
However, plenty of people in the US have been personally calling emergency services to report “suspicious behavior” of Black Americans often with horrific consequences (for example, the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice). Is the issue that Rings spy on people or is it that people are racist? (Racist and callous people, after all, tend to use whatever technology is at their disposal to further their ends — they even managed the transatlantic slave trade with wooden boats and pens made out of feathers.) Or is the issue that American cops are too trigger-happy when it comes to arresting and shooting people, and thus the idea that an overly suspicious neighbor might report you is a terrifying rather than slightly annoying prospect? Or is it that Americans are (rightly or wrongly) more fearful of crime than the inhabitants of other nations and thus more likely to panic over behavior others would view as innocuous? Would the Ring’s capabilities be more acceptable in an ethnically homogeneous nation where the possibility of such behavior occurring along racial lines could be safely excluded?
It seems like Boghosian wanted to acknowledge the reality of social conditions in America (e.g., racism, authoritarian police), but without having to go into detail. Perhaps the point is that surveillance is bad in all places, but that it is particularly bad in places with ethnic tensions. However, this is the kind of conclusion the reader is left to draw for themselves, as the book reads more like a collection of issues, rather than a scalpel-like flaying of misconceptions into their component parts.
However, perhaps precisely because it is more journalism than philosophy, “I Have Nothing to Hide” includes an unusually strong “what to do” section. This is exactly where the majority of books fall down, and authors, after portraying their chosen issue with pinpoint accuracy, tend to end limply on vague prescriptions to the effect that we should all be better people. Not so here. Boghosian’s suggestions are sharp and pragmatic. From using two-factor authentication to thinking about the financial models of companies, these are things that most people can understand and utilize. The surveillance and privacy timeline in the back of the book is also a nice touch and should help to orient the reader.
Overall, “I Have Nothing to Hide” is a sweeping, yet direct and admirably up-to-date book on one of the most important topics of our time, and Boghosian’s effort to keep these pivotal matters on the national agenda is a praiseworthy, if all-too-often unappreciated, task.
Americans may have worried about fascism to an unprecedented degree over the past several years, with copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four flying off the shelves, but (in a kind of illustrative doublethink) they seem significantly less concerned about utilizing the technology that could easily facilitate the kind of dystopian surveillance state George Orwell described in his most famous and psychologically penetrating work. For generations, the constitutional law of many countries has acknowledged that a private sphere is necessary to enable the development of personality. To be under constant observation, exposed to constant judgment, impairs our abilities to think and develop as humans, even if we are not fully aware of it. While we, of course, engage in public life, it is necessary, for ourselves and for the health of our democracy, that we each have somewhere to retreat, where we are safe from the judgment of others and alone with our own thoughts. Indeed, the lack of privacy in the Third Reich or Stalinist Russia is considered to have been an important factor in undercutting independent opposition and facilitating authoritarian rule.
To be free and to contribute meaningfully to society, it has long been held, we must sometimes be truly alone and know ourselves to be alone, as only then can we truly be ourselves. As societies, we have embarked on a strange experiment — one that sometimes seems self-obsessed, but, in another sense promotes self-annihilation, the cultivation of the public self over the private one. Boghosian’s work is a clear call to re-embrace our privacy and value its place both in our lives as individuals and in a free society.