Nazis Misappropriated My Privacy!

February 28th, 2017

Given all the renewed interest in privacy rights in the so-called Post Snowden Era, I’d thought I’d clarify a misattributed quote floating around: “You have nothing to fear, if you have nothing to hide”

Since 2011, the phrase has been used as a common retort to privacy concerns. In recent years, privacy advocates have turned the tables attributing the quote to Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany. Since nobody wants to be on the side of Nazis, the quote is now associated with pro-privacy. However, Godwin’s law begs us to be skeptical on the source.

Secondary attribution generally lies with George Orwell’s famous book, 1984. Keen readers will remember Big Brother and the all-seeing telescreens. Except that our “nothing to fear, nothing to hide” quote isn’t Nazi or Big Brother. As O’Brien in Room 101 pointed out The Party isn’t interested in what you’re hiding:

We are not interested in those stupid crimes that you have committed. The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them. Do you understand what I mean by that?

— George Orwell, 1984 (Book 3, Chapter 2)

So if not Orwellian or Fascist, what?

The quote actually was penned by Upton Sinclair, the author of the influential book, The Jungle. Sinclair used our quote twice in his Dead Hand series. Readers looking for closure will be disappointed to learn that the original context was used both for and against privacy:

Sinclair for Privacy

Not merely was my own mail opened, but the mail of all my relatives and friends— people residing in places as far apart as California and Florida. I recall the bland smile of a government official to whom I complained about this matter: “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.

— Upton Sinclair, The Profits of Religion (1918)

Sinclair for Surveillance

From first to last I had nothing to hide, and for that reason I had nothing to fear, and this was as well known to the newspapers as it was to the police who were probing the explosion.

— Upton Sinclair, The Brass Check (1919)