One of the most infuriating episodes of the NSA/Snowden/Tempora story was Foreign Secretary William Hague’s patronising little speech to the Commons, arguing that “if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear”. I had a go at this in a direct way, but felt that the Hague view (which is widespread, nay ubiquitous, among our ruling elites) needs a more considered, philosophically-informed riposte. And, lo and behold, up it comes on OpenDemocracy, in the form of a terrific interview with Quentin Skinner, the historian and political philosopher, in which he discusses various conceptions of liberty.
When asked about surveillance, he said this:
The idea that there is no problem with surveillance as long as you have nothing to hide simply points to the complacency of the liberal view of freedom by contrast with the republican one. The liberal thinks that you are free so long as you are not coerced. The republican agrees, of course, that if you are coerced then you are not free. But freedom for the republican consists not in being free from coercion in respect of some action, but rather in being free from the possibility of coercion in respect of it.
When William Hague told the House of Commons that no one has anything to fear so long as they have done nothing wrong he was missing an absolutely crucial point about freedom. To be free we not only need to have no fear of interference but no fear that there could be interference. But that latter assurance is precisely what cannot be given if our actions are under surveillance. So long as surveillance is going on, we always could have our freedom of action limited if someone chose to limit it. The fact that they may not make that choice does not make us any less free, because we are not free from surveillance and the possible uses that can be made of it. Only when we are free from such possible invasions of our rights are we free; and this freedom can be guaranteed only where there is no surveillance.
I think it very important that the mere fact of there being surveillance takes away liberty. The response of those who are worried about surveillance has so far been too much couched, it seems to me, in terms of the violation of the right to privacy. Of course it’s true that my privacy has been violated if someone is reading my emails without my knowledge. But my point is that my liberty is also being violated, and not merely by the fact that someone is reading my emails but also by the fact that someone has the power to do so should they choose. We have to insist that this in itself takes away liberty because it leaves us at the mercy of arbitrary power. It’s no use those who have possession of this power promising that they won’t necessarily use it, or will use it only for the common good. What is offensive to liberty is the very existence of such arbitrary power.
The situation is made much worse once you come to know — as all of us now know — that we are in fact subject to surveillance. For now there is a danger that we may start to self-censor in the face of the known fact that we may be being scrutinised by powerful and potentially hostile forces. The problem is not that we know that something will happen to us if we say certain things. It’s that we don’t know what may happen to us. Perhaps nothing will happen. But we don’t know, and are therefore all too likely to keep quiet, or to self-censor. But these are infringements of liberty even according to the liberal account. Surely the liberal and the republican can agree that, if the structures of power are such that I feel obliged to limit my own freedom of expression, then my liberty has to that degree been undermined.