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"The Right to Privacy" redirects here. For the law review article, see The Right to Privacy (article).

The right to privacy is a human right and an element of various legal traditions which may restrain both government and private party action that threatens the privacy of individuals.[1]


Privacy uses the theory of natural rights, and generally responds to new information and communication technologies. In the United States, an article in the December 15, 1890 issue of the Harvard Law Review, written by attorney Samuel D. Warren and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, entitled The Right To Privacy, is often cited as the first implicit declaration of a U.S. right to privacy. Warren and Brandeis wrote that privacy is the "right to be let alone", and focused on protecting individuals. This approach was a response to recent technological developments of the time, such as photography, and sensationalist journalism, also known as "yellow journalism".[2]

Privacy rights are inherently intertwined with information technology. In his widely cited dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States (1928), Brandeis relied on thoughts he developed in his 1890 article The Right to Privacy. But in his dissent, he now changed the focus whereby he urged making personal privacy matters more relevant to constitutional law, going so far as saying "the government [was] identified .... as a potential privacy invader." He writes, "Discovery and invention have made it possible for the Government, by means far more effective than stretching upon the rack, to obtain disclosure in court of what is whispered in the closet." At that time, telephones were often community assets, with shared party lines and the potentially nosey human operators. By the time of Katz, in 1967, telephones had become personal devices with lines not shared across homes and switching was electro-mechanical. In the 1970s, new computing and recording technologies began to raise concerns about privacy, resulting in the Fair Information Practice Principles.


In recent years there have been only few attempts to clearly and precisely define a "right to privacy." In 2005, students of the Haifa Center for Law & Technology asserted that in fact the right to privacy "should not be defined as a separate legal right" at all. By their reasoning, existing laws relating to privacy in general should be sufficient.[3] Other experts, such as Dean Prosser, have attempted, but failed, to find a "common ground" between the leading kinds of privacy cases in the court system, at least to formulate a definition.[3] One law school treatise from Israel, however, on the subject of "privacy in the digital environment," suggests that the "right to privacy should be seen as an independent right that deserves legal protection in itself." It has therefore proposed a working definition for a "right to privacy":

The right to privacy is our right to keep a domain around us, which includes all those things that are part of us, such as our body, home, property, thoughts, feelings, secrets and identity. The right to privacy gives us the ability to choose which parts in this domain can be accessed by others, and to control the extent, manner and timing of the use of those parts we choose to disclose.[3]

An individual right[edit]

Alan Westin believes that new technologies alter the balance between privacy and disclosure, and that privacy rights may limit government surveillance to protect democratic processes. Westin defines privacy as "the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others". Westin describes four states of privacy: solitude, intimacy, anonymity, reserve. These states must balance participation against norms:

Each individual is continually engaged in a personal adjustment process in which he balances the desire for privacy with the desire for disclosure and communication of himself to others, in light of the environmental conditions and social norms set by the society in which he lives. - Alan Westin, Privacy and Freedom, 1968[4]

Under liberal democratic systems, privacy creates a space separate from political life, and allows personal autonomy, while ensuring democratic freedoms of association and expression.

David Flaherty believes networked computer databases pose threats to privacy. He develops 'data protection' as an aspect of privacy, which involves "the collection, use, and dissemination of personal information". This concept forms the foundation for fair information practices used by governments globally. Flaherty forwards an idea of privacy as information control, "[i]ndividuals want to be left alone and to exercise some control over how information about them is used".[5]

Richard Posner and Lawrence Lessig focus on the economic aspects of personal information control. Posner criticizes privacy for concealing information, which reduces market efficiency. For Posner, employment is selling oneself in the labour market, which he believes is like selling a product. Any 'defect' in the 'product' that is not reported is fraud.[6] For Lessig, privacy breaches online can be regulated through code and law. Lessig claims "the protection of privacy would be stronger if people conceived of the right as a property right", and that "individuals should be able to control information about themselves".[7] Economic approaches to privacy make communal conceptions of privacy difficult to maintain.

A collective value and a human right[edit]

There have been attempts to reframe privacy as a fundamental human right, whose social value is an essential component in the functioning of democratic societies.[8] Amitai Etzioni suggests a communitarian approach to privacy. This requires a shared moral culture for establishing social order.[9] Etzioni believes that "[p]rivacy is merely one good among many others",[10] and that technological effects depend on community accountability and oversight (ibid). He claims that privacy laws only increase government surveillance.[11]

Priscilla Regan believes that individual concepts of privacy have failed philosophically and in policy. She supports a social value of privacy with three dimensions: shared perceptions, public values, and collective components. Shared ideas about privacy allows freedom of conscience and diversity in thought. Public values guarantee democratic participation, including freedoms of speech and association, and limits government power. Collective elements describe privacy as collective good that cannot be divided. Regan's goal is to strengthen privacy claims in policy making: "if we did recognize the collective or public-good value of privacy, as well as the common and public value of privacy, those advocating privacy protections would have a stronger basis upon which to argue for its protection".[12]

Leslie Regan Shade argues that the human right to privacy is necessary for meaningful democratic participation, and ensures human dignity and autonomy. Privacy depends on norms for how information is distributed, and if this is appropriate. Violations of privacy depend on context. The human right to privacy has precedent in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Shade believes that privacy must be approached from a people-centered perspective, and not through the marketplace.[13]

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948[edit]

A right to privacy is explicitly stated under Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

United States[edit]

The U.S. Supreme Court has found that the Constitution implicitly grants a right to privacy against governmental intrusion. This right to privacy has been the justification for decisions involving a wide range of civil liberties cases, including Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which invalidated a successful 1922 Oregon initiative requiring compulsory public education, Griswold v. Connecticut, where a right to privacy was first established explicitly, Roe v. Wade, which struck down a Texas abortion law and thus restricted state powers to enforce laws against abortion, and Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down a Texas sodomy law and thus eliminated state powers to enforce laws against sodomy.

The 1890 Warren and Brandeis article "The Right To Privacy", is often cited as the first implicit declaration of a U.S. right to privacy.[2] This right is frequently debated. Strict constructionists[who?] argue that no such right exists (or at least that the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to protect such a right), while some civil libertarians[who?] argue that the right invalidates many types of currently allowed civil surveillance (wiretaps, public cameras, etc.).

Most states of the United States[who?]also grant a right to privacy and recognize four torts based on that right:

  1. Intrusion upon seclusion or solitude, or into private affairs;
  2. Public disclosure of embarrassing private facts;
  3. Publicity which places a person in a false light in the public eye; and
  4. Appropriation of name or likeness.

Also, in some American jurisdictions the use of a person's name as a keyword under Google's AdWords for advertising or trade purposes without the person's consent[14] has raised certain personal privacy concerns. [15]


It is often claimed, particularly by those in the eye of the media, that their right to privacy is violated when information about their private lives is reported in the press. The point of view of the press, however, is that the general public have a right to know personal information about those with status as a public figure. This distinction is encoded in most legal traditions as an element of freedom of speech.

Arguments for and against the right to privacy[edit]

In 1999, during a launch event for the Jini technology, Scott McNealy, the chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems, said that privacy issues were "a red herring" and then stated "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."[16]

Related arguments[edit]

The nothing to hide argument is an argument which states that government data mining and surveillance programs do not threaten privacy unless they uncover illegal activities, and that if they do uncover illegal activities, the person committing these activities does not have the right to keep them private. Hence, a person who favors this argument may state "I've got nothing to hide" and therefore does not express opposition to government data mining and surveillance.[17] The data can still be misused though, for example if a third-party gains access to it, which would be a slippery slope argument, and not in fact a nothing to hide argument.

See also[edit]


  • Mordini, Emilio. "Nothing to Hide — Biometrics, Privacy and Private Sphere." In: Schouten, Ben, Niels Christian Juul, Andrzej Drygajlo, and Massimo Tistarelli (editors). Biometrics and Identity Management: First European Workshop, BIOID 2008, Roskilde, Denmark, May 7-9, 2008, Revised Selected Papers. Springer Science+Business Media, 2008. p. 245-258. ISBN 3540899901, 9783540899907.


  1. ^ The Privacy Torts
  2. ^ a b Warren and Brandeis, "The Right To Privacy", 4 Harvard Law Review 193 (1890)
  3. ^ a b c Yael Onn, et al., Privacy in the Digital Environment , Haifa Center of Law & Technology, (2005) pp. 1-12
  4. ^ Westin, A. (1968). Privacy and freedom (Fifth ed.). New York, U.S.A.: Atheneum.
  5. ^ Flaherty, D. (1989). Protecting privacy in surveillance societies: The federal republic of Germany, Sweden, France, Canada, and the United States. Chapel Hill, U.S.: The University of North Carolina Press.
  6. ^ Posner, R. A. (1981). The economics of privacy. The American Economic Review, 71(2), 405-409.
  7. ^ Lessig, L. (2006). Code: Version 2.0. New York, U.S.: Basic Books.
  8. ^ Johnson, Deborah (2009). Beauchamp, Bowie, Arnold, ed. Ethical theory and business. (8th ed. ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Prentice Hall. pp. 428–442. ISBN 0136126022. 
  9. ^ Etzioni, A. (2006). Communitarianism. In B. S. Turner (Ed.), The Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology (pp. 81-83). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  10. ^ Etzioni, A. (2007). Are new technologies the enemy of privacy? Knowledge, Technology & Policy, 20, 115-119.
  11. ^ Etzioni, A. (2000). A communitarian perspective on privacy. Connecticut Law Review, 32(3), 897-905.
  12. ^ Regan, P. M. (1995). Legislating privacy: Technology, social values, and public policy. Chapel Hill, U.S.: The University of North Carolina Press.
  13. ^ Shade, L. R. (2008). Reconsidering the right to privacy in Canada. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 28(1), 80-91.
  14. ^ Fishman, Ross. "Bad Precedent: Lawyer Censured for Buying Google Keywords for Other Lawyers and Law Firms". The National Law Review. Retrieved 5 March 2014. 
  15. ^ "Robert L. Habush and Daniel A. Rottier, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. William M. Cannon, Patrick O. Dunphy and Cannon & Dunphy, S.C., Defendants-Respondents.". Case No.: 2011AP1769. Court of Appeals of Wisconsin Published Opinion. Opinion Filed: February 21, 2013. Retrieved 5 March 2014. 
  16. ^ Sprenger, Polly. "Sun on Privacy: 'Get Over It'." Wired. January 26, 1999. Retrieved on June 29, 2013.
  17. ^ Mordini, p. 252.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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