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#ifmyphonegothacked: “Nothing to Hide” with a Side of Victim-Blaming

The “nothing to hide” argument has been a common fixture of post-Snowden discussion about surveillance and privacy. Most likely, you’ve heard some iteration of it in conversation—“I have nothing to hide, so why would I care if the government knows who I call on my cell phone?” Widely considered a fallacious argument by cybersecurity and legal experts, the “nothing to hide” argument also contains implicit assumptions about the divide between public and private–themes that pervade our discussions of digital communication more broadly. Most notably, shades of the “nothing to hide” argument appeared in recent discussions surrounding the leak of nude celebrity photos stolen from iCloud.


In the “nothing to hide” argument, citizenship trumps privacy—the statement declares that one is willing to exchange the privacy of their information for increased national security. With this in mind, many have objected to the “nothing to hide” argument for its legal implications. For instance, danah boyd wrote that the argument fails to consider the ways that data can be manipulated and filtered to cast an individual as guilty, and in so doing, it comes dangerously close to bypassing the “innocent until proven guilty” standard on which U.S. justice allegedly rests.


Importantly, the “nothing to hide” argument also rests on a conception of privacy as a form of secrecy, as Daniel Solove wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Rather than seeing privacy as an essential right that contributes to a healthy life, the “nothing to hide” argument rests on a deep skepticism about why anyone would desire to keep certain information private. Additionally, as Solove notes, privacy is a particularly difficult concept to articulate. He writes that:

It is a plurality of different things that do not share any one element but nevertheless bear a resemblance to one another. For example, privacy can be invaded by the disclosure of your deepest secrets. It might also be invaded if you’re watched by a peeping Tom, even if no secrets are ever revealed.

The difficulty of articulating privacy means that, in instances where an individual claims their privacy has been invaded, they are often met with resistance. For instance, someone spied on by a peeping Tom may find their claim to privacy invalidated because of vague laws that fail to accurately define a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” In digital environments, this becomes all the more fraught.


After the September 2014 release of nude celebrity photos (crudely nicknamed “The Fappening”), a strain of commentary emerged that highlighted the public/private tension of the “nothing to hide” argument. In the aftermath of the leak, many took to Twitter with the hashtag #ifmyphonegothacked. These posts were often jokes about the fact that the users in question only had the most innocuous pictures phones—excessive animal photos, photos of food, and so on. The tweet generally included an example of the type of picture on the user’s phone, and sometimes included a comment that the user was “smart enough” not to take nude selfies.  As Jill Scharr notes, this not only misses the point that the leak was an invasion of privacy due to lax security on iCloud’s part, but crosses over into victim-blaming and moralizing.


The #ifmyphonegothacked tweets point to the same misconception about privacy that pervades the “nothing to hide” argument—that privacy is a form of secrecy, and thus should be regarded with suspicion. In arguing that the most scandalous photo a hacker would be likely to find on one’s device is an awkward (clothed) selfie sent to a friend, and by posting this photo along with the #ifmyphonegothacked hashtag, the user is putting seemingly private or embarrassing content on a public forum. The subtext here is that while, yes, it may be embarrassing for a third party to see the photos, the user has nothing to hide—and that if you do have something to hide, you have done something wrong.


In this way, the #ifmyphonegothacked hashtag makes a much more chilling statement—that the women in question are in the wrong for maintaining private lives, for using their devices to express their sexuality (an increasingly common phenomenon). As Kelsey McKinney writes:

In reality, few people are above this. There is nothing wrong with libido, nothing wrong with sending a picture or a video or a snapchat to another consenting adult. What’s wrong about these photos isn’t that they exist or that they were shown on the internet. What’s wrong is that they were taken and distributed without consent from the parties involved.

In this way, the #ifmyphonegothacked hashtag not only misses the point about the crime at hand, but combines one of the most problematic arguments about security and privacy with the cultural bias against female sexual expression.


While the difficulty of articulating a right to privacy in digital environments remains a problem, some of the responses taken after the hacking and theft do hint at potential solutions. For example, 4chan (the message board site where the photos were initially posted) instituted a DMCA policy that would allow victims of hacking to have their photos removed on copyright grounds. However, these solutions come no closer to preventing these leaks in the first place, and certainly do not make up for the violation suffered by those whose intimate images are posted—violations that occur as much through the revelation of the images as well as the shaming and victim-blaming that follows.

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Trapped Between Life, Death, and the Politics of Abortion: The Marlise Muñoz Case

This week Texas takes center stage, yet again, in the political battle over a woman’s right to choose. A Texas judge begins hearing arguments today in the case of Eric Muñoz v. John Peter Smith Hospital. At the heart of this latest controversy is the Muñoz family, who for the last eight weeks has been fighting to exercise the wishes of Marlise Muñoz. Their struggle began on the morning of November 26, 2013 when Muñoz collapsed onto the floor of her Fort Worth, Texas, kitchen after suffering what doctors believe was a blood clot in her lungs.  The clot rendered her motionless and left her brain without oxygen for over an hour before her husband discovered her. Paramedics transported her to nearby John Peter Smith Hospital where she was placed on life support and pronounced “brain dead” by her physician. According to the Muñoz family, before her collapse, Marlise, a former paramedic, made her wishes clear: She didn’t want to be kept alive on life support should the situation ever arise. However, her family was stunned to learn that the hospital would not comply with her wishes. At the time of her collapse, Marlise was 14 weeks pregnant. Hospital officials explained that in accordance with Texas state law, a pregnant woman cannot be removed from life support. Texas is one of more than two dozen states that restricts the removal of life support systems to a pregnant woman. That Munoz’s fetus is still weeks away from reaching potential viability outside of the womb is inconsequential in the face of a law that requires that “life-sustaining treatment” not be withdrawn from a woman in any stage of pregnancy.

While the outcome of this case will likely determine the scope of Texas women’s rights, the case also deserves attention for what it reveals about the rhetorical dimensions of medicine and science. As the family’s fate hangs in the balance, medical experts and social advocates, perched in a variety of political camps, grapple with the definitions of life and death. In 1968, following a public announcement of a committee of Harvard medical faculty in the Journal of the American Medical Association, death was officially defined as the non-functioning, or death, of the brain. Medically speaking, Muñoz is dead; because her brain is unable to maintain even the most basic of bodily processes, her vital bodily functions, including the pumping of her heart and respiration of her lungs, are sustained by a complex of medical devices. However, the Muñoz case reveals the rhetorical indeterminacies that animate even the most objective fields of inquiry: science and medicine.

Definitions do more than attempt to describe objective reality, definitions argue. As numerous rhetorical scholars have demonstrated, definitions not only shape the meaning of things, they also advance arguments and are politically inflected with personal, social, and institutional interests. Advances in medical science and technology introduce new ethical and rhetorical dilemmas and hence require reevaluation of operative terms. Indeed, the redefinition of medical death in 1968 came on the heels of the first successful heart transplant.[i] In the wake of the procedure, questions about the details of the donor’s death swirled. Had her heart stopped before doctors took her off of the respirator, asked reporters? This question points to the still widely held belief that the presence of a heartbeat indicates life. Ultimately, the case prompted public reflection on the meaning of death and exposed ambiguities in the medical definition of death. Perhaps not coincidentally, the 1968 Harvard committee that convened to examine the “problems of the hopelessly unconscious” arrived at a definition of death that was extremely favorable to organ transplantation—not an unsurprising conclusion considering their stated goal of “advancing the cause of organ transplantation.” In most cases medical death is fairly easy to identify; brain, heart, and other bodily functions expire conterminously. Muñoz and similar high profile controversies, such as the protracted, thirteen-year battle over Terri Schiavo’s life, challenge our otherwise straightforward understanding of death.

Both the Muñoz and Schiavo cases illuminate how the act of defining something, even something as taken for granted as death, harbors political, as well as personal, consequences. As rhetorical scholar Edward Schiappa suggests, definitional ruptures occur when the status of a word is challenged. When advocates champion new definitions, they seek to alter the behavior of specific audiences.[ii] By defining death as brain death, for example, the 1968 Harvard committee sought to anticipate and quiet public fears surrounding organ donation. However, the definitional clarity achieved within the technical field of medicine has not eliminated disputes over the meaning of bodily death, as the Muñoz case makes clear, and medical notions of death often collide with lay understandings of bodily death. Indeed, the medical language itself invites misunderstanding. In medicine, though brain death is death, the term suggests an incomplete, or partial death—the failure of an organ, but not death of the entire organism, and “life support” suggests the opposite, that there is still life within the body. The language gives hope for recovery. Among those not trained in medicine, the absence of other vital signs such as a heartbeat or breathing, signify death. But in cases like Muñoz’s where two heartbeats exist in a body still capable of supporting fetal life, for some, the medical pronouncement of death appears inaccurate or premature.

For pro-life advocates, the relationship between life and the presence of a heartbeat is of great importance. Legislation newly introduced in several states by pro-life advocates seeks to outlaw abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. Although the meaning of life, as opposed to death, generally takes center stage in the abortion debate, Muñoz’s case situates death at the center of this increasingly high-stakes contest. Weakening or complicating the link between the presence of a heartbeat and the unequivocal existence of life could potentially disturb the essential connection that pro-life advocates hope to build in the public imaginary between these two phenomena. For the Muñoz family, definitional ruptures are made painfully real. They accept the medical definition of death and argue that because Marlise is deceased, she should no longer be considered a treatment-receiving patient of the hospital and is, therefore, not subject to the laws prohibiting hospitals from denying pregnant women life-sustaining treatments. Marlise Muñoz’s body unmasks the oft hidden reality that, even within the technical spheres of medicine and science, the practices of naming and defining phenomena frequently exceed the boundaries of objective, apolitical observation and rather are informed by a range of personal and political agendas. Trapped in a definitional gray area, neither alive nor dead, Marlise Muñoz’s story serves as testament to the ways in which anti-abortion laws both constrain an individual’s bodily autonomy and grant sovereignty over an individual’s body to the legal and medical establishments.

[i] Mita Giacomini, “A Change of Heart and a Change of Mind? Technology and the Redefinition of Death in 1968,” Social Science and Medicine 44 (1997): 1465-1482.

[ii] Edward Schiappa, Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003).

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Fasting for (Which) Families: Commonsense Immigration Reform?


On November 12, 2013, immigrant rights, labor, and faith leaders announced an action called “Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship.” As the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) put it, “Leaders committed to a daily fast in front of the U.S. Capitol and at locations across the country to send a clear and visible message to Congress about the moral crisis caused by our country’s broken immigration system and its impact on millions of families.” Fasts are not a new protest strategy, and relying upon family rhetoric is certainly not a new approach in the immigrant rights community. Is there anything unique about this fast, this issue, and this historical moment? As has been acknowledged many times, President Obama has both championed immigration reform, while simultaneously deporting more people than any previous administration in the history of the United States. Immigrants and immigrant rights advocates have angrily challenged Obama for his immigration policies, and for some, it seems that staging a fast in the traditions of King, Chávez and Gandhi is the only way to compel action.

The Fast for Families has drawn national media attention from outlets like Democracy Now! and the Huffington Post, and it has gained support from an array of groups and individuals. Even the Obamas stopped by the fasting tent on the National Mall in Washington, DC to offer support. What is the “clear and visible message” that the fasters are trying to send? According to the Fasters’ Declaration, they fast in order to promote “commonsense immigration reform.” They state, “We will fast and pray until the bonds of families are no longer broken. We will fast and pray until immigration reform is no longer a notion, but a reality. We will fast and pray until citizenship is no longer a dream for 11 million aspiring Americans.” The fasters want the House of Representatives to pass S. 744, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” which in June of this year, the Senate approved.

The bill has unsurprisingly stalled in the House of Representatives. Democrats have accused House Speaker John Boehner of preventing the reform from even getting a chance in the House. Boehner has recently signaled that he may be changing his tune, but with a “pathway to citizenship” built into the bill, many Republicans have vowed not to support it. If Republicans hate this bill so much, and immigrant rights advocates are risking death by starving themselves to support it, the bill must be pretty good for immigrants, right?

The bill is complex, and numerous groups have attempted to boil it down to its main parts, including the American Immigration Council, which provided this summary. My personal favorite summary is that provided by the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign, a Chicago-based collective that seeks the end to all deportations, detentions and criminalization of immigrants (they also seek the end of national borders).  Their comprehensive videos in English and Spanish, “Immigration Reform 101,” paint a sobering image of the proposed reform. In brief, S. 744 would provide a pathway to citizenship for only an estimated 7 million of the 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. Those who qualify would be eligible for what is called “Registered Provisional Immigrant” (RPI) status. Those who qualify for the DREAM (Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, and some agricultural workers would be given a somewhat accelerated pathway toward citizenship (at least 5-10 years after applying for RPI status). These two groups would not have to wait for the so-called “triggers” that must be in place before other people with RPI status can begin the naturalization process. Most undocumented people will not be allowed to apply for naturalization until several militarization (“security”) measures have been successfully put in place and evaluated. Over $46 billion has been proposed to further militarize US national borders, especially the Mexico-US border. If those measures would pass the very ambiguous barometer for success, then that triggers the pathway to naturalization—assuming those who originally qualified haven’t found themselves unemployed, or in some other violation of law that would preclude their qualification. By some estimates, those who qualify after this extended process can expect around a 20-year process before they will be US citizens. For those who don’t qualify, both the four million who are immediately excluded and the others that might find themselves excluded somewhere along the way, there is no hope of every attaining citizenship. Among other provisions, the bill also does a lot to further criminalize future clandestine crossings, creates new categories of temporary visas, and addresses issues such as human trafficking. The bill would turn future migration preferences toward those with desired labor skills and away from family reunification by eliminating some of the family categories that one can currently use for sponsorship (i.e., adult siblings and married offspring).

If S. 744 is what’s being proposed as “commonsense” reform, will families actually be helped? And if the answer to this is, at least in part, no, then what’s the Fast for Families really all about? As Dana Cloud showed in her 1998 essay, “The Rhetoric of Family Values,” “family” and “family values” function as powerful ideographs that have enduring rhetorical power in the US public sphere. In discussing the specific context of the 1990s, she revealed how the use of family values rhetoric positioned successful and middle class black families against the so-called underclass plagued by a culture of poverty. I fear the family rhetoric in the Fast for Families campaign operates similarly—certain members of certain families who do everything right will be worthy of an arduous and extended pathway to citizenship, while others won’t be considered families at all (the campaign’s logo clearly indicates what counts as a family), and the rest, “the unworthy,” will be left behind.

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