Afternoon Inquisition

Sunday AI: Secrets and Privacy

I read The Chronicle of Higher Education each week, mostly to see what’s up among other pointy-headed academics.  Last week an interesting article ran called “Why Privacy Matters Even if you Have Nothing To Hide:”

“When the government gathers or analyzes personal information, many people say they’re not worried. “I’ve got nothing to hide,” they declare. “Only if you’re doing something wrong should you worry, and then you don’t deserve to keep it private.”….

Commentators often attempt to refute the nothing-to-hide argument by pointing to things people want to hide. But the problem with the nothing-to-hide argument is the underlying assumption that privacy is about hiding bad things. By accepting this assumption, we concede far too much ground and invite an unproductive discussion about information that people would very likely want to hide.”

That is a short excerpt from a long article which I recommend you read in full.  It’s an interesting discussion of how we define “privacy”, almost none of which I’ll be discussing here, sorry.

The author brought up a really good point that I hadn’t considered before: Why is the default assumption that all secrets that need to be hidden away from the feds or kept offline are bad or embarrassing?


Now, granted, there are some fairly wonderful moments of schadenfreude to be had by poking around in folks’ privacy and discovering embarrassing things.

But when I think about things I keep private, most of what I come up with is stuff I don’t want to admit to because I think I’ll be judged.

For example, nearly everything I read is catalogued here, but I rarely mention that, because I know that some will judge my taste in books.  (I have categories named “Swashbuckling” and “Fluff”, among others.)  I confess, I read books with covers like this one on occasion.

I hide my identity online, mostly because my employer views my activities as questionable.   I also like not having to worry that someone is camped out on my IRL doorstep because they hated one of my blog posts.

I’m not “out’ at work as an atheist, or as a bisexual.  (Previous boss was fairly religious; new one an unknown quantity.)  In that case, those are truths that I don’t want to cost me a job (especially given how hard it was to find a new one when I found out I was being laid off.)

I have a lot of secrets, but I really don’t consider them to be shameful or bad.  They are just inconvenient, and hiding them saves me time and energy.

What about you? Do you have secrets that aren’t really shameful, but just inconvenient?
What inconvenient but non-shameful truths will you cop to?


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. I’m really glad you raised this point, because it certainly affects me as well. There are a lot of things I do online that are perfectly illegal, but that many people would judge me for, even if just on a subconscious level. I’m lucky enough to work in science now, where a bit of peculiarity is expected, but that may not always be the case.

    For instance, I’d much prefer that future employers know everything about my tastes. The fact that I’m into anime may not seem that unusual. The fact that I’ve written fanfiction, on the other hand, might raise some eyebrows. And if you get into the content of that fiction, people are really going to judge, even if there’s nothing illegal about it.

    (Aside: Okay okay, I know fanfiction is a bit of a legal grey area, but this isn’t the place to get into that. Let’s just say I’m not writing for any series for which the creators have come out saying they disapprove of fan works.)

    Or what about porn? Nearly everyone uses it, but not many are going to openly admit it. And almost no one would want a prospective employer to know their particular tastes in porn. There’s nothing wrong with it (assuming there are no issues with how the material was created – child porn, actual rape, etc.), but you will be judged for it.

    1. You said:
      “There are a lot of things I do online that are perfectly illegal, but that many people would judge me for….”
      I presume you meant perfectly LEGAL?”

      1. Er, yes, let’s assume I meant that.

        *Casually checks to make sure his weather-control machine plans haven’t been hacked into yet…* Whew!

        1. exactly! I’m willing to bet the the vast majority of readers of this blog own porn. Or consume porn.

          But…would any of us leave it out where anyone could see it?

          Or want to have “10,000 Anal Maniacs” on our visa receipt?

  2. In a world that allows for such phenomena as the American Tea Party, or in Canada the ruling Conservative Party, we all have secrets to hide.

  3. If you’re a woman in America today, being open about the fact you had an abortion could put you at serious risk of being harmed, harassed, fired from a job, or even killed.

    As a man that isn’t something I will ever have to deal with. I think women have a lot more to lose by not keeping things private, especially in America, due to our patriarchal culture and how it judges women.

    I blog openly about my atheism, which could potentially make things more difficult for me.

    Gay people can face tremendous danger for being open, too. As John said, it’s because of the conservatives that I feel the need to hide anything.

  4. I am pretty open online. I blog under a pseudonym but it is pretty easy to find out who I really am. I am self-employed and expert enough in my field that petty crap isn’t a factor.

    I am extremely liberal and proud of being extremely liberal. The reason I am extremely liberal is because it really does make the most logical sense, and I can articulate all the reasons I have for being liberal. I know one person who is as liberal as I am. I don’t really do anything that would be considered “bad” by anyone that I care about.

    I want everyone to be liberal because then the world will be a better place and I want the world to be a better place for everyone. AGW is the most serious problem that humans have ever faced, and the GOP is blocking doing anything effective. I care about the future and the people in it. That is why I am a liberal. That is why I blog and make comments online, to try and educate people as to the liberal values I have and why I have them.

    Conservatism is based on arbitrarily following what some people arbitrarily decided to do a long time ago and/or arbitrarily decided to change because it specifically benefited themselves to the detriment of others. It is all about maintaining social power by maintaining social power. Conservatism has a zero-sum mindset because the social power hierarchy is zero-sum. You can’t move up unless someone else moves down or dies. That is why conservatives are always looking for things to use to beat people down with. I don’t want to play that game. Life is too short.

    1. Good for you daedalus, I love your work, but am curious: Who is that one person that is more liberal than you? :)

      1. He is not more liberal, he is just as liberal. We tried to figure out who was more liberal and could find no differences. He is a lawyer who works in family law and is active politically.

        When some Massachusetts political group voted passed a resolution to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual preference (decades ago) he was the lone dissenting vote which shocked everyone, but because the language hadn’t been debated it was the language he objected to because “what if it wasn’t a preference?” He wanted the language to be about sexual orientation (i.e. motivation neutral) and all later versions of the resolution were worded that way.

  5. Incidentally, there is a difference between secrecy and privacy. I used to tell my software engineering students (paraphrasing P.J. Plauger, IIRC) that what someone does on the toilet is no secret, but it is private. That would always get a shocked laugh.

    Bruce Schneier had a simple response to anyone who said that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide: “tell me your salary”. You may substitute Social Security number (or equivalent where you live), credit card number or any similar piece of information.

    It would be cheaper if we sent all of our correspondence on postcards. The postage is much cheaper than putting something in an envelope. We use envelopes because, deep down, we all know that most of what we send in them we’d rather not have everyone in the world reading.

  6. I have a number of pseudonyms I use online, depending on the forum. I try to keep all of my accounts, wherever they are, locked down tight. I’m hoping to go into teaching, and I’m likely to end up in the middle of nowheresville, and being (1) an atheist, (2) bisexual, (3) kinky, and (4) feminist could all be held against me at some point. I’m not ashamed of any of those aspects of myself, but still, I would rather not risk my future on the hope that my potential boss will be sympathetic to any of those things.

  7. No, not really. I’ve spoken to all my work colleagues and my boss about my unusual living arrangements and my hobbies. But then again, Australia is a lot more liberal about these things than America is.

    That article was really just one big slippery slope argument, in which the slightest abrogation of privacy leads inexorably to naked photos. I find such arguments… unconvincing.

    1. That article was really just one big slippery slope argument, in which the slightest abrogation of privacy leads inexorably to naked photos. I find such arguments… unconvincing.

      Um… I hate to break it to you, but if you try to fly in the US, you’ll find that we’re already at the government taking naked photos of you. So far it’s through your clothes, but the slope is indeed quite slippery.

    2. Actually, if you read *past* the part where he solicited input from folks about how they respond, he agrees–and goes on to make the point that it isn’t the naked photos we should be worried about, but the million innocent little bits of info that can be put together to make incomplete assumptions about who we are and what we do.

  8. I teach senior high so I won’t even reveal my inconvenient secrets here, because once the students find out, for instance, how much time I spend watching the Disney Channel I’ll never hear the end of it.

  9. I didn’t used to try to hide my identity online, simply because I thought I had nothing to hide and no one to hide it from. However, I do tend to cuss a lot and get into arguments on facebook pages. A lot of my friends who all met on the same page with a highly argumentative environment have false identities because of it. I finally ended up changing my last name on facebook because a potential employer from a rival company to the one I was working for friend requested me and tried to recruit me. It creeped me out so much I had to change my name just to keep random people from finding me. Luckily I never use my real first name for anything, so it’s hard to track me down in real life.

  10. A lack of privacy and secrets should be taken as a symptom of a healthy society. If bisexual atheists were accepted being outed as one wouldn’t pose employment risk.

    I think when we have a healthy attitude toward something in society, it feels better to be open. And when we don’t have a healthy attitude toward something in society, being open encourages society to move in that direction. But in the meantime the cost can be as severe as society can inflict.

    Like a relationship. You don’t start by unloading all your baggage, but all you really want is to be accepted for who you are.

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