The Right To Privacy

In all the brew-ha-ha about our “right to bear arms” under the second amendment to the Constitution we hear very little at all about our right to privacy. Strictly speaking, that right is not mentioned in the Constitution, but it is a basic human right and it has been regarded as implicit in the Constitution in a number of Supreme Court cases — specifically Pierce v  Society of Sisters, Roe v Wade, and Griswold v Connecticut. In defending the right to privacy Louis Brandeis, the great constitutional scholar, noted in an article in the Harvard Review that “the government [is] identified as a potential privacy invader.” This view has been echoed in the decisions mentioned above and reflects the attitude of the majority of the founders of this nation who all worried about the abuses of power. The right to privacy is universally regarded as a basic human right. Indeed, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights endorsed by the United Nations it couldn’t be more explicit:

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.

Having said that, it is interesting to note the ways in which our right to privacy has been gradually invaded in a variety of ways. Moreover, it has been done so slowly and almost imperceptibly — usually in the name of “national security — or for purposes of commercial profit.  I have blogged in the past about the way we are quite willing to trade our freedom for greater security and the fear that is fostered by the media that makes it easier for the government, or indeed any public agency, to simply collect information about us that we may not be pleased to give up.  But it’s not just the government that is collecting information about us and thereby invading our privacy: it’s the data collecting companies that collect and sell information about virtually everyone in this country who has ever bought anything. As a recent article on the subject mentions:

Other than certain kinds of protected data — including medical records and data used for credit reports — consumers have no legal right to control or even monitor how information about them is bought and sold. As the FTC notes, “There are no current laws requiring data brokers to maintain the privacy of consumer data unless they use that data for credit, employment, insurance, housing, or other similar purposes.

What this means, of course, is that these data are collected, sold, and employed for marketing purposes; the data are collected from previous sales, credit card applications,  and also the social media we use, including the internet sources we connect to. It’s all “out there” and someone is taking it in and using it to find out as much as possible about the buying public in order to sell that information to anyone who wants to profit from it. So it is not just the government that is a “potential privacy invader” as Brandeis suggested. It is also commercial data collectors. The problem Brandeis explored is simply compounded in an economic system in which profit trumps privacy, though in many ways the invasion of privacy in the name of “national security”may be most disturbing.

We know, for example, that in the name of “homeland security” our computers and even our phone lines are subject to prying if there is any reason to suspect that we are up to no good. And we are told the day will soon come when drones fly about collecting information about us and storing it for future use, should we give the government any reason to suspect anything. This smacks of the presumption of guilt: a violation of the fundamental principle of law going back to Rome that declares a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. It is a brave new world that we are experiencing, and it is one in which the notion of privacy and even individual liberty, are increasingly on hold.


9 thoughts on “The Right To Privacy

  1. What has happened to the integrity of our leaders and the ones who have the power to speak up/out for what is right? It’s everywhere, isn’t it – not only in government, but also in schools, universities and in the business world. People look the other way, or like you said, they think that no one will notice.

    I am reminded of a tale of a lovely lady who tricks the man into marrying her, the world sees a beautiful woman, but to him she turns into a nasty ogre behind closed doors. he’s hobbled to dysfunction and has difficulties finding a way out of the mess!

  2. Hugh, this is a good post, and the topic is one that is close to my heart.

    What I find amazing is the amount of personal information we willingly, and unwittingly, give out to the world. We have either become lazy in controlling our privacy, or complacent, and I don’t know which is worse.

    A few areas that I see every day. 1) Just because a retail store asks for your zip code or phone number, doesn’t mean you have to give it out. And never buy into that “its store policy” line. 2) Never give out your e-mail address. Its amazing the amount of personal information is tied to your e-mail address, such as address, phone number, credit reports, etc etc. No amount of “free coupons” is worth what you give up. 3) Freeze your credit reports with the 3 major credit reporting agencies. All those credit card applications you receive in the mail are the result of companies data mining credit reports. Freeze them, and the mailbox will shortly be a whole lot lighter. 4) Don’t sign up for marketing and related information from your credit card partners. Just say no to every solicitation of private information about you.

    These are just a few of the steps I’ve taken to cut out the clutter in my mailbox, and more importantly, keep what I can in terms of personal information, private.

  3. With a lot of these businesses/web sites, they technically are not invading our privacy because we allow them access to personal data when we click the little box that says “I agree to the terms,” or simply fill out a credit card application or an application to buy a new cell phone. It stinks, because often we have no other way to get access to a lot of modern technology or sometimes even goods, but we are voluntarily surrendering our right to privacy every time we buy something on Amazon, use Facebook, etc. We still have that right to NOT sign up for these things, to buy books in a bookstore with cash, etc., but you almost have to be a Bill Holm-like near-Luddite to live that way. Yet, it sometimes still does seem Bill Holm-like brave to live that way: we CHOOSE to give away our private information often because doing so makes life more convenient. But we do not have to.

    It used to drive Dan Johnson crazy. Hugh, you knew Dan — the former PR director at SSU who wrote a column for the Independent. He’d go to Radio Shack, pay for something in cash and they would still insist on his phone number or area code so they could track where their customers came from. He almost always gave 212 (New York), even though he lived in Marshall. Resist much, obey little: that was one of Dan’s ways of doing so.

  4. Hugh, timely and effective post. I am reading a book called “Habits” which I will write about when I finish. You would not be surprised how scientific companies like Targets have become in tailoring their reach outs to customers. To all the women readers, this will scare the crap out of you, but they know when you are pregnant before you have told anyone. What they figured out early on, is to not offend the woman by letting her know they know, but they do include “just-in-time, if not before” coupons on baby products, mommy relief products in their mailers. Well done, professor. BTG

  5. btg: holy crap! That is Big Brother literally right into the womb.

    I wonder if a company could make big business by promoting itself as the anti-corporate model: “We take cash only, don’t ask for any personal ID or data, don’t have security cameras, and have no wi-fi, gps or cellular phone signals on the premises.” I suppose there are models close to that already: Drug dealers, and Switzerland. But what if an American company tried that? I’d shop there!

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