Privacy SOS

On the ‘nothing to hide’ mentality and the impact of mass surveillance on dissenters

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Hard to believe, but there are somehow still people who do not understand why we should be concerned about government surveillance even if we “haven’t done anything wrong” or “have nothing to hide.” But there are thankfully plenty of people who see right through the folly of this argument.

Since Glenn Greenwald informed us about the extent of NSA spying in a series of stories in early June, there have been lots of eloquent reminders about why the “nothing to hide” view absurd and dangerous. Hacker Moxie Marlinspike wrote a great piece about it, as did Daniel Solove.

My contribution was to post a shocking and eye-opening rejoinder at this blog just days after the initial Guardian story dropped. In that piece, a person from one of the ‘Arab spring’ countries describes in detail how a government can easily use advanced and limitless surveillance capabilities to clamp down on dissent – and physically harm dissenters and their families. If you haven’t read it, you really should. And pass it on to friends and family who might not yet understand why they should care.

But we don’t even have to look outside our own country or contemporary period, nor at hypotheticals, to understand why privacy and checks on government surveillance powers are so critical in a healthy society. Today I read a story that is becoming all too common in the US, and it shocks my conscience:

The Desmogblog reports:

Documents recently obtained by Bold Nebraska show that TransCanada – owner of the hotly-contested Keystone XL (KXL) tar sands pipeline – has colluded with an FBI/DHS Fusion Center in Nebraska, labeling non-violent activists as possible candidates for "terrorism" charges and other serious criminal charges.

Further, the language in some of the documents is so vague that it could also ensnare journalists, researchers and academics, as well. 

TransCanada also built a roster of names and photos of specific individuals involved in organizing against the pipeline, including's Rae Breaux, Rainforest Action Network's Scott Parkin and Tar Sands Blockade's Ron Seifert. Further, every activist ever arrested protesting the pipeline's southern half is listed by name with their respective photo shown, along with the date of arrest.


An April 2013 presentation given by John McDermott – a Crime Analyst at the Nebraska Information Analysis Center (NIAC), the name of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funded Nebraska-based Fusion Center – details all of the various "suspicious activities" that could allegedly prove a "domestic terrorism" plot in-the-make.

Among the "observed behaviors and incidents reasonably indicative of preoperations planning related to terrorism or other criminal activity" is "photography, observation, or surveillance of facilities, buildings, or critical infrastructure and key resources." A slippery slope, to say the least, which could ensnare journalists and photo-journalists out in the field doing their First Amendment-protected work.


Melissa Troutman and Joshua Pribanic – producers of the documentary film "Triple Divide" and co-editors of the investigative journalism website Public Herald – are an important case in point. While in the Tioga State Forest (public land) filming a Seneca Resources fracking site in Troy, Pennsylvania, they were detained by a Seneca contractor and later labeled possible "eco-terrorists."

"In discussions between the Seneca Resources and Chief Caldwell, we were made out to be considered 'eco-terrorists' who attempted to trespass and potentially vandalize Seneca’s drill sites, even though the audio recording of this incident is clear that we identified ourselves as investigative journalists in conversation with the second truck driver," they explained in a post about the encounter, which can also be heard in their film.

"We were exercising a constitutional right as members of the free press to document and record events of interest to the public on public property when stripped of that right by contractors of Seneca."

So here we have evidence that ‘homeland security’ investigators are working in tandem with a foreign, private company to undermine the peaceful advocacy efforts of anti-Keystone organizers. Regardless what you think about the pipeline, that is chilling stuff.

And it’s hardly unusual. The FBI and DHS spied on the Occupy Wall Street movement extensively. Austin police officers went undercover and helped organize an action that ended in serious charges for a peaceful protester. The Boston Police Department spied on antiwar activists for years, labeling them “HOMESEC” threats and “DOMESTIC EXTREMISTS.”

These are the things about state spying on activists that have been made public. As we know, our government keeps a tight lid on its extensive surveillance operations. That leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth, wondering: What don’t we know about how the government uses the vast troves of information it collects against dissidents?

It is well past time to push back and roll back the surveillance state. That has to be the first item on our agenda, because if we don't roll back these out of control state powers, we will fail to achieve anything else we want.

Whether your major concern or pet cause is the Keystone, the wars, economic justice, or ending mass incarceration: you cannot do it in a police state or a surveillance state. We will fail.

That means the only thing left for us to do is organize, together. Onward, then, towards a better future for all of us, including our children.

After all, the rights we fight to defend are our own.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.