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If I'm Not Doing Anything Wrong, Why Should I Care About Surveillance?

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Despite recent uproar over the secret collection of Americans' telephone records and internet activity, government surveillance programs have long thrived under the indifference of Americans.

A major source of this apathy is the enduring myth that law-abiding citizens have little reason to fear surveillance. If one has nothing to hide, the reasoning goes, then why care about being watched? Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, echoed this sentiment in a recent interview: "I don't think you're talking to the terrorists. I know I'm not. So we don't have anything to worry about."

This is an oddly passive response from a nation whose citizens celebrate their robust liberties and reject the surveillance-driven philosophies of authoritarian regimes. Such a response is also an exceedingly narrow and short-sighted understanding of contemporary surveillance and its far-reaching consequences.

In a democracy, it is essential that the lion's share of power lay in the hands of the people. With the rise of massive data storage capabilities and powerful analytic computers, information is increasingly the currency of power. As the government's capabilities to collect and retain vast swaths of information continue to grow, so too does its power. This consolidation of information is troubling not so much for its effects on any one person, but rather for its effects on the organization of social and political activity.

Already there is evidence to this effect. Muslim communities in New York, under heavy surveillanceby the NYPD, report a chilling effect on a wide range of behaviors. Some Muslim student associations, for instance, have felt compelled to limit their outreach and to refrain from holding political discussions in public spaces. Similarly, increased surveillance capabilities have made it easier for the government toidentify reporters' sources, damaging media groups' ability to gather the information they need to report.

There is a real danger that political and civil groups, or even just individual citizens, will be increasingly hesitant to enter their opinions into the public and digital spheres. The cumulative absence of these voices -- potentially stymieing such things as political mobilization and public debate -- will impact everyone. Simply put, even in the unlikely event that one lives outside the scope of surveillance, it is simply false to believe that one could ever live outside of its effects.

People with "nothing to hide" have additional reason to be concerned at the prospect of dragnet surveillance. The further technologies of government and corporate surveillance penetrate into people's lives, the harder it is to control the content and distribution of information about oneself. As websites, digital devices, drones, and security cameras harvest and organize nearly unfathomable masses of personal data, previously anonymous individuals are transformed into digital subjects, identified and linked to unseen records.

One's inability to control, correct, and, often, simply view such records can place law-abiding citizens in a precarious position. In the private sector, personal data can be used to determine things like eligibility for loans, healthcare benefits, or infringement of copyright. At the government level, personal data can be used to identify individuals for criminal investigation, restrict travel privileges, or deny financial benefits. In both instances, errors or misrepresentations can have serious consequences.

Unfortunately, personal identifiers -- such as IP addresses -- are notoriously unreliable and often producefaulty matches of people and data. Yet, as corporations and government increasingly interact with ourdigital identities, such records are becoming more "real" than our true identities, resulting in opaquedigital profiles which are unrepresentative of a person's true beliefs and activities. In this way, surveillance is not so much recording information as it is creating it.

Finally, the very idea that some people have nothing to hide is itself a fallacy. As Russell Baker writes, "I hear it said that people who have nothing to hide need not fear this strangulating technology of surveillance. And where are they, these people with nothing to hide?" Although penned in 1988, Baker's point is even more salient today: we all have information that we would rather keep private.

History makes clear that collected information need not be criminal in nature for it to be leveraged against individuals. The FBI's infiltration of the student movement in Berkeley during the 1960s, outlined in a recent book by Seth Rosenfeld, illustrates this point vividly. In gathering troves of information about the First Amendment protected activities of (harmless) student protesters, the FBI systematically destroyed careers, ruined innocent lives, and manipulated the political process.

This is not to say that corporate and government surveillance can serve no legitimate purpose. However, it is highly misleading to suggest that large segments of the American population are immune to the consequences of over-surveillance. To claim otherwise--thereby discouraging people from challenging the status quo--effectively disenfranchises those who are naïve enough to believe the myth.

Jeremy Carp is a Research Associate at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and a contributing author to Regulating the Web: Network Neutrality and the Fate of the Open Internet.