The concept of privacy has a prominent place in historical debates and numerous scholarly works. In the past decade, however, the issue of privacy ascended to the forefront of social debates, frequently centering on the impact of technology (the Internet, data mining, satellite observations), government surveillance, national security, and corporate intrusions into private lives.
The integration of the Internet and other technologies into the daily routines of citizens presents unique challenges to privacy rights. Many corporations, schools, and government and civic institutions now store personal information about their members, clients, and employees in databases that are accessible via the Internet. Camera surveillance systems in many cities monitor for various traffic violations, while some law enforcement agencies use it to monitor city streets in search of people who display suspicious or unlawful behavior. Some private institutions even want to monitor employee e-mails and files and track employee computer work habits. In recent years, some companies, worried about their images, fired employees because of content on the employees’ personal Web sites, blogs, or Myspace.com pages. Advanced surveillance technology monitors phone conversations and e-mails, and even allegations in the news speak to the U.S. government tracking consumer purchases, library reading lists, and travel itineraries.
Historical definitions of privacy are not uniform, and debate continues over the meaning, value, and scope of the concept of privacy. In the United States, one could argue that there are three main camps in the privacy debate: those who believe privacy is a legal right (and under attack); those who believe privacy is not a legal right (and citizens have too much privacy); and those who fall somewhere in between.
Scholars who believe privacy is a legal right argue that, although privacy is not explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, a right to privacy is implicit in the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, providing protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. Scholars who contend that privacy is not a legal right argue that because the Constitution does not mention the word privacy, citizens do not have privacy rights. They are also quick to point out that, regardless of how one interprets the Fourth Amendment, a compelling state interest must prevail over a person’s right to privacy in order to properly protect the underpinnings of liberty. Scholars who fall somewhere in between assert that the Fourth Amendment may protect citizens against actions by the state but that it rarely protects them from intrusions by other citizens, corporations, or the press.
For some scholars, privacy rights in the United States are being stripped away at an alarming rate. Many maintain that since the attacks of September 11, 2001, a pervasive government surveillance, with little oversight by the U.S. Congress, is sacrificing personal liberty and privacy for national security. Others contend that recent privacy debates are not historically unique. On the contrary, they argue that U.S. history is rife with instances of public authority violating citizen’s privacy, such as the actions of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Some people contend that the only reason people need privacy is so they can do things that are unethical or illegal. Others argue that because of technology, citizens have zero privacy anyway and therefore need to wake up to reality. Some even suggest that surveillance has positive consequences because it helps to establish reputations and credentials, which permit individuals to establish and maintain trust in strangers.
Most countries have laws that place limits on the privacy of citizens. For example, tax laws require individuals to provide detailed information about their income. In many countries, judicial rulings tend to treat privacy as a highly subjective and conditional commodity. Moreover, even where court precedents support a particular privacy right, the general public often ignores these rulings. For example, the U.S. Privacy Act of 1974 made it unlawful for federal, state, or local governments to deny an individual any rights or benefits for refusing to provide a Social Security number. Even though Social Security numbers are not officially a form of national identification, many citizens must provide this information in order to receive loans, fill out a job application, or rent a movie.
A recent example of the privacy debate at a global level centers on the Safe Harbor proposal between the United States and the European Union. Under the proposal, companies voluntarily self-certify to adhere to a set of privacy principles and, once certified, can continue to receive personal data from the European Union. Privacy advocates are critical of the European
Commission’s decision to approve the agreement, because it rests on a self-regulatory system through which companies promise not to violate their declared privacy practices. Critics contend there is little enforcement or systematic review of compliance policies. Individuals do not have the right to appeal or right to compensation for privacy infringements.
If a working definition of privacy refers to the ability of individuals or groups to preserve an anonymous identity, control the flow of information about themselves, and be unbound from unwarranted intrusions, it would appear that the laws in the United States and elsewhere need to catch up to technology.
- Alderman, Ellen and Caroline Kennedy. 1997. The Right to Privacy. New York: Vintage Books.
- Brin, David. 1998. The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Harrow, Robert, O. 2005. No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society. New York: Free Press.
- Solove, Daniel J., Marc Rotenber, and Paul M. Schwartz. 2006. Information Privacy Law. 2nd ed. New York: Aspen.
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