The Notion of

Privacy Key on a Computer Keyboard

We all value privacy our privacy. From those rare moments when we are alone with our thoughts to our social security number to the specific tax bracket we fall under to our ability to lock our doors against the world to the times we sing in our showers. “Privacy is fundamentally about the power of the individual” (Garfinkel, 2001). Margulis (2003) sees the benefits of privacy as falling into two areas –the sociopolitical and the physiological level. At the sociopolitical level, privacy affords things such as political freedom in choice, expression, and criticism; while at the psychological level, it allows for the development of the individual through self-assessment and experimentation (Margulis, 2003). The benefits of privacy are obvious; so much so that according to Louis Harris Polls (2000), respondents in a 1990 survey about the Declaration of Independence said that if the document were rewritten today, it would identify privacy as an essential right of all human beings. The predicament of privacy is also telling in another poll by Louis Harris conducted in 1996. According to this poll, one in four respondents admits being victims of privacy invasion (Garfinkel, 2001).

Why should we be worried? Isn’t privacy an essential right?

Not really. “There is no such constitutional guarantee” (Marshall, 2001). In fact,  the notion of privacy is somewhat modern. Colonial America had no privacy as witnessed by their living arrangements and mail system. “Most communities even had laws prohibiting people from living alone” and “it was not uncommon for the person delivering a letter to read it, and even on occasion, add to it” (Marshall, 2001, p. 12).  Fortunately, by the time the Constitution was written, there was a greater interest in privacy. However, the only legal protection for this right was within the Fourth Amendment which restricts unreasonable search and seizure (Masci, 1998).

Specifically, this amendment guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures” (Julie, 2000, p. 127). Yet Marshall (2001) points out that this limited protection of privacy extends as a safeguard only from the government, not from other individuals or corporations. Additionally, based on the 1928 court decision of Olmstead v. United States, the interests protected are property-based literalism and are confined to tangible and physical ones, and only against physical invasions (Julie, 2000).

This changed temporarily with the 1967 case of B. Katz v. the United States. The most significant result of this case is the measure of a reasonable expectation of privacy (Julie, 2000). This decision protected “a citizen’s subjective manifestation of a privacy interest,” but allowed invasion to the point “that society is prepared to accept it as legitimate” (Julie, 2000, p. 130).  The bottom-line of this decision is its recognition that an individual’s rights goes beyond physical property.

Are you asking what this has to do with technology?

Unfortunately, when the court had conservative appointees, the notion of privacy was once again reined in. “The effect of modern life, with its technological and other advances, serves to eliminate or reduce a person’s justified expectation of privacy” (Julie, 2000, p. 131).  

Wait, there’s more!

No discussion of privacy could be complete without a mention of the Code of Fair Information Practices and the Privacy Act. The Code of Fair Information Practices, which was a result of a 1973 report to study the impact of computers and privacy, created a bill of rights for the information age (Gurfinkel, 2001).  This code has five principles:

            1. There must be no personal data record keeping systems whose very existence is

            2. There must be a way for a person to find out what information about the person
              is in a record and how it is used.

            3. There must be a way for a person to prevent information about the person that
             was obtained for one purpose from being used or made available for other
             purposes without the person’s consent.

            4. There must be a way for a person to correct or amend a record of identifiable
              information about the person.

5. Any organization creating, maintaining, using, or disseminating records of identifiable personal date must assure the reliability of the data for their intended use and must take precautions to prevent misuses of the data.

Doesn’t sound familiar?

That is because most of these principles were adopted not by the United States, but by European nations (Gurfinkel, 2001). The European Union uses The Directive on Personal Data Protection that provide individuals with control of their personal information (Masci, 1998).

The United States had the 1974 Privacy Act addressed collective citizen privacy. “It prohibits data collected by the government for one purpose from being used for another purpose. It also gives citizens the right to see any government records kept on them and to have an opportunity to correct any errors” (Marshall, 2001, p. 519). But critics point out is that this has just caused a rise in retentions of private databases.  

Yes, since 1974, other acts have passed regarding the issue –mostly federal ones regarding government agencies (Marshall, 2001). However, the acts that aim to protect personal privacy in some way are composed of patchy state laws (Marshall, 2001). 

So technology and privacy?


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