Being a citizen of the United States comes with many benefits in comparison to citizenship in other countries. Through the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights we are granted certain rights -- the right to free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly -- just to name a few. However, despite the 27 amendments the Bill of Rights that guarantee American protections and liberties, there is no explicit law that guarantees protection to a citizen's right to privacy (Davis, 2009). It is more of an assumed protection, although most Americans do not realize it.
In 1928, Associate Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis referred to the right to privacy as the "right to be left alone" (De Bruin, 2010). This assertion is often supported with a citation of the 14th amendment which states: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws" (Doyle & Bagaric, 2005). It's a clause subject to interpretation, much like the 1st, 4th and 5th amendments which are also used to support the right to privacy for all U.S. citizens (Davis, 2009). In short, the idea is that all surveillance and investigation into our personal worlds, affairs and communications should not be conducted without probable cause. It is presumed that each person has the right to their share of anonymity without interference and scrutiny from others and particularly from the government (Ruiz, 1998).
The idea of privacy has changed over the years. Technology, for example, has transformed the way personal information is accessed, used and shared resulting in a number of state and industry specific laws that have been created to address issues of privacy and information security in the modern era (Woo, 2006). The 10th amendment gives individual states power to create state constitutions or laws that speak to personal issues of privacy for residents. The Privacy Act of 1974 prevents the unauthorized disclosure of personal information held by the federal government (Davis, 2009). The Fair Credit Reporting Act grants a certain right to privacy for consumers whose information is collected and stored by the major credit reporting agencies (Neville, 2000). The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act gives parents to power to monitor and limit the personal information available about their underage children (Woo, 2006). Perhaps most notable are the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rules and Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) which all address the use of personal information across computer networks. Each guarantee an individual's right to privacy by stipulating data security measures be put in place by companies (De Bruin, 2010).
It is clear that there are a number of laws that infer the right to privacy. This suggests that the concept is universally accepted and in the current information age, considered a concern that warrants protection. With rampant identity theft and data misuse, this is understandable. However, this also raises other questions. What exactly is privacy? Is it truly a right and if so, should there be limits? This paper will explore these questions and their implications by looking at the concept of the right to privacy through a more philosophical lens.
The words "private" or "privacy" can hold many different meanings. Both words are of Latin origin and convey meanings of the "singular person" or "individual" (Mill, 2008). The words are often used interchangeably as antonyms of the word "public" (Davis, 2009). Privacy then, makes reference to the inner mental and physical life of a person that is withdrawn from public view and awareness (Taylor & Perry, 2012).
In the world of philosophy, all thoughts and feelings are private. They come into the human mind as very personal - an inherent quality requiring no withdrawal from the public. However, with other things in life steps must be taken to introduce privacy. This might include acts such as adding a privacy fence around a property, having tinted windows installed on a car, or placing curtains at a bedroom window (Ruiz, 1998). This is where the debate about a "right" to privacy truly begins. We have personal sphere of existence in which we can make a conscious choice to share or not, and when pushed or violated by others, the intrusion is viewed as a violation of our right (Doyle & Bagaric, 2005).
To illustrate this point, Janice Richardson presents a traditional image of privacy. She references the image of an individual seated at the center of a grouping of concentric circles that range from the most private to public (2011). In the first circle are the individual's innermost thoughts and those actions which do not encroach directly upon others. In the next concentric circle are the realms of family and home. The outer circles consist of work and civil society, with government at the outermost fringe. In this image, the divide between public and private appears clear and distinct and is often related to a particular place - home, work place, public arena, and government (Mills, 2008). Privacy involves self-selection of what personal information to share, with whom, to what extent, and by what means.
Is Privacy a Right?
There seems to be a shift from viewing privacy as the "right to be left alone" to more of an ability to safeguard access to ourselves as individuals. Privacy today is more aligned with issues related to our close relations with others, particularly those who are not necessarily part of our immediate families (Davis, 2009). De Bruin points to arguments based in relationship theory to help explain this point (2010). According to relationship theory, privacy is a necessary condition for many human relationships, because relationships involve "the mutual giving of gifts in the form of information exchange; and such gift giving only prospers when individuals have secure possession of what they want to give, namely, private information" (De Bruin, 2010). In harmony with this idea, Richardson posits, "without privacy, we are deprived of secrets that we can [choose to share] with those with whom we would be intimate" (2011). In many ways, privacy has just as much to do with protecting our world of personal thoughts, beliefs, values and feelings as it does with protecting the dynamics of the personal relationships that we deem central to our identity.
We now live at a time when our view of privacy is also shaped by advancements in technology (Cowan, 2010). Many of us possess online identities and use online communication and collaboration on a daily basis, deciding how we wish to present ourselves and to whom. This has created a revolutionary shift in how we as a society define privacy. Ultimately, we look to control and limit the access others have to our personal information (i.e., online identification aliases and usernames, passwords, opt-outs, and encryption). Privacy it appears is desired in everything we do including how we reach out to others, leverage technology, self-select our personal and professional connections, and limit knowledge about our inner circles, thoughts and feelings (Neville, 2000).
As postulated by Taylor and Perry, the idea of a "right to privacy" relates to basic ideas about what it means to be human. They offer these questions: "Does this mean that simply by being human we have a right to privacy? And if so, what is the source of this right? Is it derived from a more fundamental right, like the right to protect ourselves from harm? If I have a right to privacy, does that mean you have a corresponding duty not to spy on me or nose about in my personal business?" (2012). The question of whether privacy is a right may hinge on what the purposes for infringing on one's personal space may be (Laas-Mikko & Sutrop, 2012). In other words, there may be times when what someone is doing harms another, in which case the authorities may have not only a "right" but also an obligation to intervene to protect the lives, property or rights of others.
Consider abuses of some of society's most vulnerable members. There are countless examples of negative activities being cloaked in secrecy in the world today. If allowed to go on unabated they could have dire consequences for others and for society as a whole. If someone is running an illicit drug operation in your neighborhood, violating children through sex trafficking, stealing the personal identities of others for financial gain, or creating counterfeit currency (that in turn means price increases passed on to consumers as businesses lose revenue), should a professed "right to privacy" be honored? Most of us would argue no. In such circumstances, privacy intrusions protect civility and human decency -- the fibers that help hold a society together (Laas-Mikko & Sutrop, 2012). When measures to side-step inferred privacy privileges are aimed at protecting the basic…