You Do Too Have Something To Hide

“Let them look at my phone records. I have nothing to hide. They can read all my emails. There’s nothing there worth reading.”

We hear this primarily from the young, who are said to be used to living openly on-line, and from the old who share this in common with the young: ignorance of history and of human nature. Today, and for the benefit of these mis-, or rather uninformed, people a brief lesson.

No man is innocent in the eyes of his enemy. A zealous prosecutor can take the most harmless of circumstance and through innuendo, contrivance, and brazen lie turn it into at least dark suspicion if not “proof” of heinous crime.

You bought a book on the Middle East because of a noble interest in history? So do terrorists read those books. You made a phone call from nearby a mosque? So do terrorists make these calls. You made a crude and in poor taste joke after an incident? So do terrorists make these quips.

You decided to join a local Tea Party-like organization because of your sincere belief in limited government? Or have you renewed your membership in the NRA? So do “domestic”, “home-grown”, “self-radicalized” terrorists join these groups.

Have you not heard the term railroaded? How about framed? How about falsely accused, hounded, harassed? Is it is merely paranoia and lapsing into extremism to suggest that the government, sated on your secrets, could act in these ways as it has and far too often?

Could the IRS target groups which it perceives as its enemies? Could sealed divorce records be publicly aired? Could a zealous prosecutor who cares only of her public image and is a stranger to truth convict the innocent? Could a government libel and slander a man in order to bamboozle a judge into issuing a warrant against this man?

The powers of my imagination pale, but a story of your culpability can always be weaved by a determined enemy. Anything can be turned against you, and the more information government has on you, the easier it becomes to manufacture “evidence” of your misdeed.

Information is power: it is the lifeblood of politics. Giving bureaucrats and politicians this much power is to tempt them beyond human ability to resist. (Giving power to computer and statistical algorithms used to data mine records is no solution. These cannot be perfect, and it is people who run them.)

It’s probably far too late to remind anybody of these words, taken from the document which at one time dictated the law under which even politicians had to live:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

It has now become a “reasonable” search to track your every movement, your every call, perhaps even your every email and on-line transaction. It is now “probable cause” that you are guilty of a crime just because you exist.

“But it’s only meta-data.” Meta-data forsooth! Have you any idea what this is? It tells the time of your call and where you were when you made it. It tells who you made it to, and tells of the people you contacted who they in turn contacted. Do you text? Then they have that information too.

It’s rumored the government even has your emails. Perhaps not the text of these, but the meta-data. Again, this tells much. It tells where you were and on what you wrote them. It tells the time and length. It tells who it went to, and it tells this of everybody.

Even without your exact words spoken or written, this is a dense and nearly complete picture of your behavior. If a bureaucrat cannot find something in this trove that at least casts you in a bad light, then he isn’t trying.

“But what about the children! We demand safety!” I have yet to hear any politician respond to these words of a man of a far superior mind:

If the government can’t catch terrorists without spying on its own citizens, then tough luck. Let if find some other way. The price we have to pay for this program of extremely limited success is just too high.

Update Until my server’s DNS problems (not “issues”) are resolved, you might not be able to see the tweets linked. They are, in order:

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. Ben Franklin.”

“If NSA algorithms so good at detecting spies, how did Edward Snowden go undetected?”

Update See this from brother statistician John Cook: A statistical problem with “nothing to hide.”


  1. WJB

    Can you talk about the whistle-blower, Edward Snowden? Did he do the right thing? Does he have to fear the Triads?

  2. We could actually have the best of both worlds.

    Let’s say we assign a secret ID to every citizen, then we store that information in a central database tightly controlled by the justice department.

    Then the Federal Government would have access just to the activities involving those ID (eg. X324235 made a phone call to Y242342 at 11:00am)

    Then, but upon probable cause, if PRISM high scores X324235 as national security threat the Federal Government demands to the Justice Department to reveal the personal details that belongs to hat ID.

    This way everyones’ privacy is kept and the bad guys are tracked.

    We can refine the idea but a kind of NOC citizen list might be a good trade off for everyone.

  3. Briggs


    He set out to be a martyr and a martyr he has to become. The ends cannot justify the means.


    Best laugh-line of the day: “Tightly controlled by Eric Holder.”

  4. JH

    “If NSA algorithms so good at detecting spies, how did Edward Snowden go undetected?”

    This only invites the following questions.

    Are NSA algorithms really so good at detecting spies? Define “good.”

    What are the algorithms? A rule like “draw to 16 and stand on 17” is not an algorithm.

    What are the working conditions at NSA for Snoweden? Was it hostile? Was his demand not met? What triggered this whistle-blowing?

    Does anyone know how to hide email messages behind an un-circumventable paywall? ^_^

  5. Daniel

    Fran, what you’re proposing is vulnerable to de-anonymization attacks[1], once you known which ids are related (e.g. via phone calls) it’s possible to correlate these relations with other public databases. Even if we can’t figure out how to deanonymize the data someone else may[2][3], and privacy is lost.

    A second problem is how to ensure the DOJ database is perfectly secure. For example, once you leak an id it’s entire history is available, unless you also ensure that the relations database is rewritten with new ids (even then someone that knows an specific relation can lookup it again and figure out the new id).

    Once we think of “secure” ways to build such systems we end up adding them more and more information, mostly due to false sense of security and in the end we have an insecure system with much more information than we would like.


  6. DAV

    Link to J. Cook in update 2 is bad.

  7. Briggs


    Fixed, thanks.

    Oh Ken. Are you not attempting to use logic in your question, that most philosophical of subjects?

  8. Sander van der Wal


    Why would anyone trust a government, that has been caught red-handed in spying on the citizenry, to really use secret ID’s in such a database? Next to the fact that the smart bad guys will not be grackable using this system.

  9. Zundfolge

    One of the pithiest rebuttals I’ve heard to “If you aren’t doing anything illegal you have nothing to worry about from [insert privacy violation here].” is as follows; “Well, you’re not doing anything illegal in the shower, so you’d be fine with them setting up cameras there?”.

    People really don’t understand that the 4th Amendment wasn’t written to make it easier for criminals to get away with their crimes, it was written to keep over-reaching and criminal government agents from “criminalizing” your innocent behavior.

  10. Unfortunately, there is really no way around this. We now live in a society that “shares” everything–way too much in many cases. However, as the old saying goes, you cannot put the genie back in the bottle. In an effort to “fit in” and have online, fake friendships, we posted our lives on Facebook. We love cell phones–even though they can be tracked. It’s out there. The best we can do is fight when the records are wrongly used.

    In the past, presidents, heads of agencies like the FBI had plenty of files on people they wanted to control. Now it’s electronic. It’s pretty much the way things have always worked. Instead of communists, the government hates conservatives. Instead of intercepted mail, it’s email. We deal with it the same we did in the past.

  11. Briggs, Daniel, DAV, Sander van der Wal

    Okay, let’s forget about anonymization as such for a solution, how about a Black Box Paradigm?.

    Imagine PRISM as, literally, a locked black box, where we set the following rules in place.

    1- All information goes in, even phone calls and emails.
    2- The code analyzing the data must be approved by Congress, Senate and any expert proposed by Civil Rights groups before the it goes into the locked black box.
    3- The black box will posses no permanent storage devices (only RAM)
    4- The only information coming out from the machine will be individuals high scored as a possible national threat.
    5-The seal of the Box for can only be broken for updates with the approval of Congress and Senate and Civil Rights groups will be informed.

    By the way, I’m not complaining about the US Constitution, in fact, I wish we had anything remotely close to it in my country. But I have a hard time to believe that if we all think together we cannot figure out a protocol so that we can have both security and privacy.

  12. Doug M

    In 2034, after all of your information is available to everybody, when all dababases of your DNA, medical records, communications, GPS history and transactions can be cross refferenced, will students say what was Orwell so worried about?

    In the current state of the law, once you share your private information with a third party, it isn’t considered private anymore.

    Since the phone company sends you a statment of all of the calls that you have made, the recipient and the time of the call, it should be reasonable that they having already collected that data might share that data.

    Perhaps we will get a more precise definition of “resonable expectation of privacy” out of this.

    In the end, you to will learn to love Big Brother.

  13. DAV


    Point (2): If we look at the success of laws coming out of Congress, that’s bad idea. They can’t even get programs to work when the programming language is English. What they would do instead is pass it off to some agency. Yet another bureaucratic nightmare.

    Point (3): How would that work? One power failure and it loses everything. If it’s never turned off, what’s the point of the RAM?

    The idea rather built into the Constitution is that an individual is innocent unless proven guilty. A database of every individual is skating dangerously close to guilty until proven innocent. A database in the hands of the government WILL be used inappropriately. Congress has raided Social Security funds — funds which were earmarked — in the past. Social Security numbers were never intended as universal ID’s but they are ubiquitously used. So,

    Point (5) is a a nice sentiment but nothing more.

    I’m not complaining about the US Constitution, in fact, I wish we had anything remotely close to it in my country.

    Who knows? Maybe someday we’ll all be saying that.

  14. Briggs


    Just saw your website. Good video on your About page (to name drop, Persi was on my committee when he was at Cornell; this was back in the late 90s). I particularly liked that his analysis of card-shuffling was an objective Bayesian deduction (i.e. “random” doesn’t means “random”, which is mystical, but “unknown”).

    But as to the government collecting information on citizens, the best thing would be not to collect. What does Spain do?

  15. Ray

    That’s unindited felon.

  16. Sylvain Allard

    The usefulness of collecting such information is in hindsight, more than in foresight. It is easy, once the crime has been committed to go through the data and recreate the path followed by someone who committed a crime. Just like video camera don’t prevent crimes but facilitate the arrest of the person who committed the crime.

    Where such database are more frightening is not in what use the government might do of the data, than what individual who are able to access the data may be able to do with the data it stores.

    There are 2 good movies that explored the problems in the 1990s “Enemy of the States” with Will Smith and “The Net” with Sandra Bullock. Both show what theoretically could be done.

    The problem with it is the amount of data collected is too great to be of anything useful in preventing crimes. The Tsarnaiev brother succeeded because they were 2 and didn’t chat about what they were doing. The plan thwarted in Canada to derail a train failed because the guy talk and someone signaled them to the police.

    Finally, I wonder why Issa would refuse to release the interrogation transcript unless they show something going against is agenda. In the end, and as I predicted before the IRS was a false scandal.

  17. Sylvain: It was not a false scandal. Give it a rest. You’re in Canada, for crying out loud. What’s the big deal for you?

  18. Bill S

    I won’ t comment on the topic other than to mention to Syvain that – not bad for someone who is still confused about getting killed in a CIA complex after fleeing from the equivalent of an embassy.

  19. Bill S: Yes, I went through that routine before with him. I have no intention of repeating a long, drawn out exchange. I have other things to do.

  20. Sylvain Allard


    Listening to Fox News, you probably didn’t here about the testimony by the IRS manager, a conservative republican, who explain why they concentrated there effort on groups with those name. Issa knew of this testimony when he accused the White House of lying.

    The people in those say what they did and why they did it, which was not pilitically motivated.

  21. Sylvain Allard


    Benghazi is a CIA compound hiding behind the front of a consulate, not an embassy (embassy have marines defending them even here in Canada).

    But of course, Obama is born a black Muslim in Kenya and was sent to the USA to overthrow the US government. All this was done by someone who is lazy and not very intelligent.

  22. Lynn Clark

    Ray: or maybe “unindicted felon”

  23. Sylvain Allard


    You seem to have the life’s saving attitude of quitting a conversation when you lack argument to support your point.

  24. Zundfolge

    FoxNews bashing … the last refuge of a leftist scoundrel.

  25. Sylvain Allard


    I wonder how many fox viewer would be able to say where Washington D.C. Is on a map.

    They are so misinformed that like Bill O’reilly, they believe that Lincoln sat in the Oval Office.

  26. Larry Sheldon

    Anybody got a link to the O’Reilly quote?

    I can find the link to the 60 states quote.

  27. Noblesse Oblige

    Good, Briggs. Good

  28. Sander van der Wal


    Against. I live in Europe and have no possibility to influence matters by voting. I see a country violating my rights. Not just a government. An entiere nation. Including you, if you are an American citizen.

  29. Ken

    What’s worse, the Federal Government keeping tabs on people based on their on-line & phone activities,


    major corporations doing that & selling that info to whoever will pay for it


    Considering the government is accessing data compiled and retained by private firms (and only some of the data those firms are compiling about us) the real threat doesn’t seem to be the government.

    Consider also that there’s a LOT of things people can do to affect what the government does & doesn’t do with collected information and other things — the power of the ballot remains a powerful influence. There’s less the citizenry can do about what corporations can–and have been–collecting on us.

    Why is it people aren’t concerned about the likes of Facebook archiving everything they can collect about you…until the government asks for some subset snippet of that info?


    Facebook, for example (and there are others) collects information on your activities even when you’re not logged into Facebook… Every time you click a “like” or “dislike” about something it is adding that to its profile of you–which quickly reveals a lot about your personality (see the link about what Target does with such info just based on credit card use).

  30. Sander van der Wal


    So, do not click then.

    Anyway, by the time companies find out the do not make enough money from that data compared to the cost of obtaining, storing and managing it, they will stop collecting it. Currently everybody believes there’s gold in user data, but how many times have you heard that a company made X dollars more because of it?

  31. Sylvain: Reading the HuffPo, you probably missed the parts about how the code works and why what was done was not allowed.

  32. Alan D McIntire

    “But of course, Obama is born a black Muslim in Kenya and was sent to the USA to overthrow the US government. All this was done by someone who is lazy and not very intelligent.”

    Sylvan was being sarcastic, but President Obama referred to 57 states, the bomb that landed on Pearl Harbor, the United States’ intercontinental railroad, and the Austrian language (there IS no Austrian language- they speak mostly German).

    Given that President Obama is clueless about economics and what caused the PRIOR housing collapse,

    “Obama administration pushes banks to make home loans to people with weaker credit
    By Zachary A. Goldfarb,April 02, 2013”

    it’s OBVIOUS that he’s not very intelligent.

  33. DAV, Sander van der Wal

    I was just exploring ideas, I still believe there must be ways to enjoy high degrees of security without renouncing to privacy. Not looking for them give governments the national security excuse to keep abusing information.

    Also, maybe you can’t vote on this from your country but you can definitely vote in your country to ban US company services that do not abide to your countries rules. Not to mention that nobody forces you to use US services like Facebook, Google… so on.


    “random” doesn’t means “random”, which is mystical, but “unknown”

    Thanks! the way you explain it here it seems you renounce to the concept of randomness and, therefore, everything is determined and we simply are ignorants about it.

    I don’t really know what to think about randomness I can’t really wrap my mind around it. I read some physicists arguments about randomness being a true property of nature beyond the “unknown” concept (I can’t find the reference, sorry).

    But as to the government collecting information on citizens, the best thing would be not to collect. What does Spain do?

    We probably give away our citizens information to the NSA in exchange for a “free” computing PRISM analysis time… yep, there it is where I would put my money.

    I realize the best thing is information no being collected, I was just wondering about the best realistic thing in this “anyone can Google you” era we live in.

  34. Sylvain: A couple of other notes–the “conservative” has NO name at this point, which means for all we know, it’s a janitor.

    This is a statistics blog. According to the Atlantic, 66% of apps held were for tea party/conservative groups, 33% for others. Now, either the apps for tea party groups outnumbered the others or the numbers say “bias”. Also, Obama’s brother’s group was approved retroactively.

    So when we look at the data, twice as many conservative apps were held by a nameless official. I don’t see any of this as “proof” of anything other than a lot more research needs to be done.

  35. Sylvain: I have the time-saving talent to stop arguing with the unteachable and will exercise that starting now.

  36. Sander van der Wal


    There is indeed a very secure way: not gathering and storing the information in the first place. Count the number of citizens killed by terrorists and the number of citizens killed by states during the last hundred years or so. It is almost impossible for a terrorist to kill lots of people, and for states it is very easy. No reason to give those kind of people more powers than necessary.

  37. Sylvain Allard


    The Huffpost I linked to doesn’t speak of any “code” at all, or legality.

    What Cummings put out is transcript of an interview under oath of the manager responsible of the department. Here are part of the release transcript. The statement that he could be a janitor is disingenuous/ridiculous.

    “Cummings released portions of the interviews, including one with a Cincinnati IRS screening group manager, who is only identified as being a “conservative Republican.”

    Question: “Do you have any reason to believe that anyone in the White House was involved in the decision to screen tea party cases?

    Answer: “I have no reason to believe that.”

    Question: “Are you aware of any political bias by employees in the Cincinnati office against conservative views?”

    Answer: “I’m not aware of that.””

    Read more:

    Why did Issa never mentionned this transcript?

  38. Sylvain Allard


    I teach teenagers to drive for a living. You don’t teach anything when you are not able to be convincing of why you are right.

    I make you a prediction: As a result of the IRS scandal they will go back to the original congressional wording of the law. This means that most of these group will see there 501-c-4 taxed exempt status revoke and they will have to pay taxes, with many going bankrupt because they won’t be able to pay the taxes owed. In 2014, no one will be able to request the status for the election as it was first intented.

  39. Larry Sheldon

    It seems to me that WE, of all people, should make an effort to have our facts right and correct.

    “President Obama referred to 57 states”

    SENATOR Obama said he had BEEN to 57 states, had one more to go to, was not allowed to got to Alaska and (one of the great unasked questions) Hawaii.

    The totals 60 states in this time zone.

  40. Sylvain: Nameless, faceless-he certainly could be the janitor. When he has a name, then we can talk. I can pretend to be a flaming liberal (in fact, I have been called that many times in the past) and as long as I remain nameless and faceless, you have no way to verify. Get back to me when he has a name and a face.

    Teenagers believe whatever they want–and they love having a license to run wild. There are some very talented adults who can influence teenagers with just their personality. Not many, but they do exist. Being right and having proof does not mean anyone will listen–never did, never will. That’s why God made natural consequences (like drive too fast, you drive off a cliff and could die. At least on the second time you give it a try–true incident, by the way).

    I’m okay with doing away with ALL tax exemptions, even churches. I want a flat tax.

  41. Sylvain: “The statement that he could be a janitor is disingenuous/ridiculous.”


    Not really ridiculous or disingenuous.

  42. Larry Sheldon

    I am disappointed. I didn’t realize I was signing up for a troll-feeding orgy.

    I’m out.

  43. Sylvain Allard


    People often favor things that are against their own good. For example you favor a flat tax rate, which has been proven over time to create inequalities and benefit mainly to the richest people.

    I don’t know how old you are, if you are married, have kids or how rich you are. My guess would be that you are between 40-60 years old, that you have 2-3 childrens and that your family income is less than $80k a year.

    So a flat rate would be detremental to your own good. A family that win about $80k/year pays about 11k in income taxes and social Securities without any deduction, you pay much less after deduction like the interest on your house.

    With a flat rate people gaining more money would pay less taxes and people making less money would pay more.

    Many people believe that the poor don’t pay taxes. The reality it that they pay a large part of their income on taxes anytime they buy anything anywhere.

    Even Adam Smith admitted that the richest people were working less than the poorest people.

  44. M E Wood

    I’m not sure I would want to live in the U.S A. or in Canada, Sylvain, you live in fear all the time.
    What is wrong with the government gathering statistics about you.? It will get in a muddle because it is staffed by human beings , and it will lose files, and send them to the wrong people and people who are sworn to secrecy will decide they will be foresworn because that is how confused people, arejust us in like New Zealand. But that is life.
    We don’t have religious education in schools either. Freedom from religion may or may not be link here ( using Crabtrees Bludgeon)

  45. M E Wood–You do have a point. Americans tend to be afraid of everything. In this case, it’s a political tool–scare people into following a specific political philosophy. It’s probably also literature like 1984 and Brave New World. People envisioned the government forcing people to live a certain way. It never occurred to people that both books novels could be describing a voluntary state. Plus, I find it hard to believe people did not know this was going on. Look at the “targeted” advertising on the net–Google knows what you buy and matches puts up ads that match your buying habits (I got ads for a meat grinder for weeks after I registered one). If Google can do that, how can one possibly believe the government cannot? (The teaching of religion or not teaching it in schools probably has nothing to do with this.)

  46. M E Wood

    If I may quote?
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Crabtree’s Bludgeon is a foil to Occam’s Razor, and may be expressed


    “No set of mutually inconsistent observations can exist for which some

    human intellect cannot conceive a coherent explanation, however


    Its origin is obscure, but appears to be associated with R. V. Jones and

    may appear in the Crabtree Orations, a set of academic commentaries

    attributed to the fictitious poet, Joseph Crabtree, after whom the

    Crabtree Foundation is named.


    Very Useful.

  47. Larry Sheldon

    “Crabtree’s Bludgeon”

    I have never heard of that before, but it certainly does explain things like Gorebal Warmening.

    I suspect this might be the core philosophy behind the data miners operations where they they find STRONG correlations between the most unlikely things.

  48. Wikipedia removed the article as being “fake” (Crabtree was a fictitious poet, it seems). It is still in “thefullwiki”. It may be from a nonexistent poet, but I like the idea. It seems to cover all instances of doublethink quite nicely. Too bad it can’t explain WHY this occurs and then maybe we could go about remedying the mess.

  49. Larry Sheldon

    The medical literature on-line has a number of references to Crabtree’s Bludgeon, which find to be mo more of a “hoax” that “Murphy’s Law” or a number of other such useful maxims.

  50. I’m just reporting what Wikipedia says:

    This page has been deleted. The deletion and move log for the page are provided below for reference.
    12:38, 18 February 2013 JohnCD (talk | contribs) deleted page Crabtree’s Bludgeon (G3: Blatant hoax)
    Look for Crabtree’s Bludgeon on one of Wikipedia’s sister projects

    I’m not one to believe everything I read on Wikipedia and I did find references to the term in other articles. I do think it’s an interesting observation–irregardless of where it came from.

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