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If you've nothing to hide

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Thursday, 14 August 2008

How worried do you reckon people in developing countries are about their privacy when they are struggling with the  necessities of life? The question seems stupid. But it is important because it underlines the fact that privacy is a  middle-class invention by people who have got nothing else to worry about.

The recommendation earlier this week by the Australian Law Reform Commission to introduce an Australia-wide legally  protected privacy right ismorally misguided and socially destructive. History confirms that humans don't need a strong right  to privacy to flourish.

Moreover, the suspicion that results from us not sharing information about ourselves may be destructive of the common good.


Although not without qualification, the principle that "if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear" has  considerable merit. Privacy is often no more than code for the "right to secrecy", which is destructive of an open and free  society.

If there were less privacy, criminals would find it harder to plot harmful acts (hundreds of crimes have been thwarted by  closed-circuit television). We would be better placed to make informed investment decisions (no more tiresome "commercial in  confidence" conversation-stoppers) and know more about the real agendas of our politicians.

Moreover, there is an important paradox that emerges in relation to giving too much ground to the right to privacy. The more  tightly certain types of information is guarded, the more entrenched is likely to remain its significance and the prejudice  that it can induce. Familiarity and exposure to a particular experience and trait often leads to greater tolerance levels.

A good example of familiarity leading to greater acceptance is the changed community attitude towards homosexuals. The  courage displayed by some high-profile people to come out during the past decade or so seems to have blazed the trail for  many previously closeted homosexuals to do likewise. This has resulted in a dampening down of previously existing widespread  homophobic attitudes.

It is not difficult to multiply such examples. Presently, a similar enlightenment seems to be occurring in the context of  mental illness. Not long ago, a similar process occurred in relation to HIV-AIDS sufferers.

Wide-ranging recent research into the human condition has shown that as a species we are all pretty much the same in terms  of what makes us happy. Things that are important to wellbeing are liberty, close relationships, good health. Things that  don't make us happy are money (once we are beyond average income) and passive forms ofconduct.


This knowledge that we are all similarly wired can lead only to a greater acceptance of each other. Acquisition of this  knowledge will be retarded by the Trojan Horse that is the right to privacy.

Given that knowledge normally leads to enlightenment, why is that the government is moving towards introducing laws that  fuel ignorance and therefore moral and social regression?

The explanation rests in the fact that contemporary moral discourse is built on the notion of rights. We have an insatiable  appetite for rights. They appeal to those with a "me, me, me" approach to moral issues.

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The article was first published in The Australian on 13 August, 2008

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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