This Man Has Nothing to Hide—Not Even His Email Password

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Dyer deserves credit for this much: Unlike the typical person who invokes the phrase "I've got nothing to hide," he understands that in a society where one actor (the NSA, for example) has access to a lot more information than other actors (Muslim Americans, say) the ensuing asymmetry in power is ripe for abuse. In fact, he says that one flaw in his proposed experiment is that he'd be at a unique disadvantage as a lone actor in society subjecting himself to full transparency, and would be much better off in a world where everyone else was similarly vulnerable.

What Dyer hasn't adequately grappled with is the impossibility of bringing about such a society, in a world where the vast majority of people value privacy, without brutal coercion. Even in the unlikely event that he won over a simple majority of citizens, what about the minority that didn't want to live under the new system? A totalitarian sovereign would be needed to enforce such far-reaching rules. (Even then, so long as minds can't be read, thoughts would remain secret.)

I'd always imagined that if an "I have nothing to hide" adherent were to give me access to their private affairs, I'd quickly be able to show them that a malign actor could wreak havoc on their lives with the information they had revealed. Since Dyer granted that he was vulnerable to information asymmetries and nevertheless opted for disclosure, I had to admit that, however foolishly, he could legitimately claim he has nothing to hide. What had never occurred to me, until I sat in front of his open email account, is how objectionable I find that attitude. Every one of us is entrusted with information that our family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances would rather that we kept private, and while there is no absolute obligation for us to comply with their wishes—there are, indeed, times when we have a moral obligation to speak out in order to defend other goods—assigning the privacy of others a value of zero is callous.

With Dyer's consent to poke around his email account, I didn't feel any compunction about doing so, at first. Absent any definite idea of what I was seeking, I first made an attempt to confirm the veracity of information he'd already given me. Seeking an old resume, I searched for all emails with an attachment. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that I instead found myself staring at a list of emails from every Tinder connection who'd sent him naked cell-phone photos. How would those women feel if I contacted them, explained the access Dyer had given me, and asked how they felt about it? It's impossible to know. I quickly exited that search without noting any names or email addresses. An attempt an an interview might cause them extreme anxiety or discomfort.

I'm unwilling to risk it.

In fairness, Dyer hardly shared his private communications with the whole world. As he pointed out, I am a known privacy advocate and the employee of a respected magazine. I have strong professional incentives to maintain a reputation for ethical behavior. It was highly unlikely that I would try to blackmail any of his contacts, post their photos online, or do anything else malign. Besides, photos are only ever as secure as the email passwords of sender and recipient, and right now they're sitting on various corporate servers around the world. The notion that they were ever totally private or absolutely secure is an illusion.

Yet they were also shared with the expectation of privacy—as were emails from Dyer's romantic trysts with married women, which I also confirmed (though if any of them are reading and concerned that I now hold power over them, rest assured that I neither noted nor remember their names or email addresses). I did not search for the names of Dyer's children at all, a detail I include so they know that anything they might've told their dad in confidence wasn't passed to this reporter. Going forward, it is easy to imagine some of Dyer's loved ones eschewing his counsel when anxious, or grieving, or in need of confidential advice. Won't he miss those interactions and regret the fact that he's no longer helpful in that way?

Dyer is an honest man committing to an ethical code he believes to be righteous. He is trying to make the world better. He doesn't believe people should have a right to privacy, so he is ceding his own. These traits and impulses are worthy of some respect.

I'll be less reflexively dismissive next time someone tells me that they have nothing to hide. This type of unicorn does exist! But I will also understand more fully that if someone truly has "nothing to hide," it means that they also have insufficient regard for the comfort, preferences, and desires of people who feel differently. With funding, Dyer will go forward with his project, and his camera crew will inevitably make people uncomfortable every time that he enters a public bathroom or a medical clinic, or when his child wants to share a traumatic experience with his or her father. The world he wants to create is one where there would be no option to refrain from revealing to colleagues that you'll have hemorrhoids surgery while on vacation; where girls going through puberty could only talk to their mothers about getting their periods in public; and where every time a potential romantic partner rejects you, it happens for all to see. Think of everyone who has ever kept a confidence you bestowed in a moment of need or vulnerability. All of them had this in common: They had something to hide.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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