AC Grayling Guardian U.K. 3/17/08

In the current debate about the erosion of civil liberties, a stock claim aimed at dampening the ardour of their defenders is that “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”.

The answer to this is – oh indeed? – nothing to fear from legislation that reduces civil liberties by extending the power of the state to detain, inspect, question, collect personal information, intercept communications, and deploy new and more instruments of surveillance and monitoring such as CCTV cameras and ID cards?

The assumption behind the “if you have nothing to hide” claim is that the authorities will always be benign, will always reliably identify and interfere with genuinely bad people only, will never find themselves engaging in “mission creep” with more and more uses to put their new powers and capabilities to, will not redefine crimes, and even various behaviours or views now regarded as acceptable, to extend the range of things for which people can be placed under suspicion – and so considerably on.

It is all or some of naive, lazy and irresponsible not to be maximally vigilant regarding civil liberties and human rights, because it is a datum that the liberties of individuals are inconvenient for all states and their security services, and in dispensations where there are few if any restraints (think the Soviet Union, or even today’s Russia – and China) it is liberty which quickly and comprehensively suffers.

Where an alert populace can use its liberties such as free speech to defend its other liberties vigorously, the universal tendency of states to increase their policing powers can be resisted: but even in such countries as the UK and US it takes real effort to mount and maintain such resistance. Consequently it is not acceptable to rest content with the “if you have nothing to hide” argument, for it is one of the most seductive self-betrayals of liberty one can imagine.

The creation or adoption of instruments of control, surveillance, and eavesdropping, along with laws and powers to detain, proscribe, silence and punish in areas of thought and activity which were once not subject to such interference, is like loading a gun: we put the loaded gun in the hands of a benign and concerned government wishing to protect us from terrorism, illegal immigration and organised crime, then they pass the gun to the next generation of government, and they in turn to the next … and so unpredictably into the future, in the hope that things will always be such, and times such, and people such, that benignity can and will reign all the way, with the ordinary citizen still functionally free and secure throughout.

History teaches a painfully different lesson about such naive hopes. If one would try to protect oneself against things going wrong, do not create instruments that could all too easily go wrong in the wrong hands – and very, very wrong at that.

Nor should one ever forget that it is easier for governments to create laws and instruments that compromise civil liberties than for these to be repealed or moderated subsequently. Examples are legion; in Britain we have, among others, the debacle of the Official Secrets Act 1911, the infamous “Section 2” of which caused 78 years of mischief by being too vague and wide-ranging. Therefore we know one thing for certain: that when our present government has finished compromising our civil liberties yet further, it will be a long road back from the follies to follow.