“If you have nothing to hide, show us your email passwords”

The Apple vs. FBI drama is in the national headlines, which means so are the issues it raises around democratic governance, civil liberties, national security, and mass surveillance powers in a new age of digital technology.

To recap, the U.S. government wants Apple to break into a particular iPhone—an act which advocacy groups like the ACLUtechnical gurus, and legal experts warn could establish a technical hack and legal precedent vulnerable to abuse by various parties, including and especially the government. One analogy used by those on Apple’s side is that the demand is akin to forcing paper shredder companies to alter their products to make thicker shreds, so that law enforcement can easily recreate shredded documents.

It’s a complex issue, but one notion in particular that’s often invoked in these debates deserves extra scrutiny. That notion is the claim that if people have done nothing wrong, they have nothing to hide and therefore shouldn’t care about their privacy—even in the face of sweeping powers by the government to access their personal information.

Here’s a counterargument: that assertion is like saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say. Likewise, we should care about privacy because we all have something we don’t want made public, whether due to reasons like shame, fear, and so forth. That’s just part of being human in a complex society.

So when public figures use the “nothing to hide” talking point, they could be pressed to take the passwords challenge: send their passwords to all of their email accounts to media outlets. If politicians truly have nothing to hide, because they’ve done nothing wrong, why not let the whole world see to judge for themselves? One could even set up a (blank) website to list everyone who’ve taken up the challenge. As one journalist explains—

“And if you really, truly, whole-heartedly believe that you don’t have anything to hide? You clearly won’t mind someone rifling through your emails, your photos, your documents, your bank statements, and even your household trash — not to mention your usernames and passwords.”

It’s worth noting some of the broader considerations and competing interests at play. For instance, our system of government is a powerful instrument for progressive (and regressive) change that is also flawed and fallible—and flawed and fallible institutions run by flawed and fallible people should not have access to unlimited information about everybody. Information is power. There are counter-intuitive arguments in favor of the ability to hide information as well, which should be weighed against the arguments against it in the context of national security—such as the protections of secrecy for dissidents, investigators, and polemicists with unpopular opinions against the powerful. That ability is partly why they were able to act as catalysts for good meaningful changes over the course of our history.

These are thorny, complicated issues. But as the debates continue on, it’s worth reminding people why the often-cited “nothing to hide” claim is so problematic. The email password challenge is an interesting way to challenge it.