An Analysis of Privacy Issues and High School Students in the United States Today
In the Age of Information, the issue of invasion of privacy continues to dominate the headlines. More and more people, it seems, are becoming victims of identity theft, one of the major forms of privacy invasion, and personal information on just about everyone in the world is available at the click of a mouse. In this environment, can anyone, especially high school students, reasonably expect to have any degree of privacy? High school students, after all, are not protected by many of the same constitutional guarantees as adults, but their needs for privacy may be as great, or greater, than their adult counterparts. To determine what measure of privacy, if any, high schools students can expect at home and school today, this paper provides an overview of the issue of privacy, followed by an analysis of its various dimensions as they apply to this segment of the population. A discussion of current and future trends is followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Background and Overview. In his essay, "The Costs of Privacy," Kent Walker (2001) advises that "Privacy is both an individual and a social good. Still, the no-free-lunch principle holds true. Legislating privacy comes at a cost: more notices and forms, higher prices, fewer free services, less convenience, and, often, less security. More broadly, if less tangibly, laws regulating privacy chill the creation of beneficial collective goods and erode social values" (p. 87). Likewise, Jeffrey Rosen suggests that "privacy protects us from being misdefined and judged out of context in a world of short attention spans, a world in which information can easily be confused with knowledge" (p. 209). Yet, while the headlines are replete with reports concerning privacy issues and how they are playing out in the workplace and school, there are some profound differences in what can reasonably be expected in terms of privacy from one society to the next.
In the West, privacy assumes a more important role for many people, perhaps, than their counterparts in the East simply by virtue of the social emphasis on individuality in the former and the emphasis on the needs of the group first in the latter; nevertheless, people everywhere seem to agree to privacy is an important component of the human existence. This assumption was borne out by research conducted by Naz Kaya and Margaret J. Weber (2003), who found further differences even in the nations of the West as their concerned the reasonable expectation for privacy. "Although the desire for privacy varies from one situation to another," they say, "it appears that some cultures have a stronger preference for privacy and more privacy needs and gradients than others" (Kaya & Weber, 2003, p. 79). Other researchers have characterized different cultures as being "contact" and "non-contact" in their privacy expectations, with a clear reference to the Western concept of the "need for space" being involved in such assessments. According to Kaya and Weber, "The contact culture is composed of individuals (e.g., Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Hispanic) who interact more closely with one another than individuals of the non-contact culture (e.g., Northern European, North American)" (p. 80). Therefore, students from contact cultures who prefer closer social interaction would have less privacy needs than their non-contact culture counterparts.
In an increasingly multicultural society, these different expectations of privacy can result in different reactions among different people, of course, but despite these differences, all people need to be alone sometimes, and solitude in these cases should not be confused with isolation. According to James Q. Whitman, "In every corner of the Western world, writers proclaim 'privacy' as a supremely important human good, as a value somehow at the core of what makes life worth living. Without our privacy, we lose 'our very integrity as persons'" (p. 1151). A number of observers have agreed that privacy is somehow fundamental to humanity's "personhood"; further, it is widely recognized that individual privacy is being threatened by the evolution of contemporary society through innovations in telecommunications, surveillance and increasingly intrusive methods of inquiry. Whitman says, "Commentators paint this menace in very dark colors: Invasions of our privacy are said to portend a society of "horror," to "injure [us] in [our] very humanity," or even to threaten "totalitarianism," and the establishment of law protecting privacy is accordingly declared to be a matter of fundamental rights. It is the rare privacy advocate who resists citing Orwell when describing these dangers" (p. 1151). These fears are not unfounded of course.
Today, many states, as well as a number of counties, localities, and federal agencies, operate a variety of centralized "human services" data banks that manage client records submitted by agencies for virtually permanent storage. According to Trudy Hayden, Evan Hendricks, and Jack D. Novik's book, Your Right to Privacy: A Basic Guide to Legal Rights in an Information Society (1990), "Police and other criminal justice officials can often obtain information from client records simply on request. Schools, employers, and landlords are sometimes told that a student, employee, or tenant is the client of a welfare or social services program. Records are often made available to researchers. So loose are the confidentiality regulations for most programs that these disclosures are perfectly legal. On the other hand, some programs maintain very strict confidentiality; for example, federally funded drug and alcohol abuse treatment programs generally protect client records even against a subpoena" (p. 57).
At the same time, advocates of maintaining existing privacy protections and expanding them in the future are likewise forced to admit that the concept of privacy is exceedingly difficult to define. "[N]obody," writes Judith Jarvis Thomson, "seems to have any very clear idea what [it] is" (p. 37). While all authors are not quite as vague about the concept as Thomson, many of them feel compelled, nevertheless, to acknowledge that privacy, fundamentally important though it may be, is an particularly elusive concept to articulate. "In particular," Whitman says, "the sense of what must be kept 'private,' of what must be hidden before the eyes of others, seems to differ strangely from society to society" (p. 1152). There are some legal guidelines available, though, that help to codify precisely what adults in the United States can expect in terms of personal privacy.
According to Black's Law Dictionary (1990), the "right to privacy" means "The right to be left alone; the right of a person to be free from unwarranted publicity; and right to live without unwarranted interference by the public in matters with which the public is not necessarily concerned" (p. 1195). While everyone, adolescent and adult, East and West alike, perhaps, shares an approximation of what "the right to privacy" is and what can reasonably be expected in day-to-day life, there are four basic categories of privacy invasion that are actually actionable in the U.S. courts today:
Appropriation. This term refers to the increasingly common crime of identity theft, or other circumstances wherein an individual's name or likeness is appropriated without permission.
Intrusion. This occurs when someone intrudes on another person's solitude or seclusion, as well as an individual's residence.
Public disclosure of private facts. This type of privacy invasion involves unwanted publicity "of a highly objectionable kind," that is provided about someone; the information can even be true, but a cause of action may still exist if the individual involved is not a celebrity, politician, sports figure or someone who has been otherwise exempted from this component. According to Robert Lissit, there is a fine line between what is allowed to be publicly disclosed, but this line has become increasingly blurred in recent years, particularly as it applies to juveniles: "Whether it's a live telecast of bloodied teens carried from Columbine High School, a live feed of a man shooting himself on a California freeway, or a mother and son running from cameras after visiting a memorial for school shooting victims, there's a conflict between the public's right to know and the individual's right to privacy" (p. 98).
False light in the public eye.
The final type of privacy invasion consists of publicity that places an individual in the "false light of the public eye" (Black's, p. 1195).
Certainly, most people cherish their privacy and will go to great lengths to protect it; however, privacy considerations for adults and adolescents vary in significant ways, but still tend to mirror privacy considerations for their adult counterparts. In his essay, "The Two Western Cultures of Privacy: Dignity vs. Liberty," James Q. Whitman points out that, "Privacy advocates often like to claim that all modern societies feel the same intuitive need to protect privacy. Yet it is clear that intuitive sensibilities about privacy differ from society to society, even as between the closely kindred societies of the United States and continental Europe. Some of the differences involve questions of everyday behavior, such as whether or not one may appear nude…