Right to privacy

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Privacy may be lessened by surveillance – in this case through CCTV.

The right to privacy is an element of various legal traditions to restrain governmental and private actions that threaten the privacy of individuals.[1][2] Over 150 national constitutions mention the right to privacy.[3]

10 December 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) originally written to guarantee individual rights of everyone everywhere. The words Right to Privacy is not written in the document however, many interpret this by reading Article 12,[4] which states:

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.

Since the global surveillance disclosures of 2013, initiated by ex-NSA employee Edward Snowden, the right to privacy has been a subject of international debate. Government agencies, such as the NSA, CIA, R&AW and GCHQ, have engaged in mass, global surveillance.

Some current debates around the right to privacy include whether privacy can co-exist with the current capabilities of intelligence agencies to access and analyze many details of an individual's life; whether or not the right to privacy is forfeited as part of the social contract to bolster defense against supposed terrorist threats; and whether threats of terrorism are a valid excuse to spy on the general population.

Private sector actors can also threaten the right to privacy—particularly technology companies, such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Yahoo that use and collect personal data. These concerns have been strengthened by scandals, including the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal, which focused on psychographic company Cambridge Analytica which used personal data from Facebook to influence large groups of people.[5]


The concept of a human "right to privacy" begins when the Latin word "ius" expanded from meaning "what is fair" to include "a right - an entitlement a person possesses to control or claim something," by the Decretum Gratiani in Bologna, Italy in the 12th Century.[6]

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 explicit finding 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".[7]

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.[7] In that dissent, he urged that personal privacy matters were more relevant to constitutional law, going so far as to say that "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 potentially eavesdropping switchboard 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 raised more concerns about privacy, resulting in the Fair Information Practice Principles.

In recent years there have been few attempts to clearly and precisely define the "right to privacy".[8]

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[9]

Under liberal democratic systems, privacy creates a space separate from political life, and allows personal autonomy, while ensuring democratic freedoms of association and expression. Privacy to individuals is the ability to behave, think, speak, and express ideas without the monitoring or surveillance of someone else. Individuals exercise their freedom of expression through attending political rallies and choosing to hide their identities online by using pseudo names.

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, "individuals want to be left alone and to exercise some control over how information about them is used".[10]

Marc Rotenberg has described the modern right to privacy as Fair Information Practices: "the rights and responsibilities associated with the collection and use of personal information." Rotenberg emphasizes that the allocation of rights are to the data subject and the responsibilities are assigned to the data collectors because of the transfer of the data and the asymmetry of information concerning data practices.[11]

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 labor market, which he believes is like selling a product. Any 'defect' in the 'product' that is not reported is fraud.[12] 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".[13] 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.[14] Amitai Etzioni suggests a communitarian approach to privacy. This requires a shared moral culture for establishing social order.[15] Etzioni believes that "[p]rivacy is merely one good among many others",[16] and that technological effects depend on community accountability and oversight. He claims that privacy laws only increase government surveillance.[17]

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 allow 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 a 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".[18]

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.[19]

Recognition by country[edit]

European Union[edit]

Compared to the United States, the European Union (EU) has more extensive data protection laws.[20]

The Council of Europe gathered to discuss the protection of individuals, during the Convention Treaty No.108 was created and opened for signature by members States and for accession by non-member States.[21]

The Convention closed and the was renamed Convention 108: Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data.

Convention 108 has undergone 5 ratifications with the last ratification 10 January 1985 officially changing the name to Convention 108+ and providing the summary stating the intent of the treaty as:

The first binding international instrument which protects the individual against abuses which may accompany the collection and processing of personal data, and which seeks to regulate at the same time the transfrontier flow of personal data.[22]

Increase use of the Internet and technological advancement in products lead to the Council of Europe to look at Convention 108+ and the relevance of the Treaty in the wake of the changes.

In 2011 the modernization of Convention 108+ started and completed in 2012 amending the treaty with Protocol CETS No223.[23]

This modernization of Convention 108+ was in progress while the EU data protection rules were developed, the EU data protection rules would be adapted to become the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Under GDPR, data about citizens may only be gathered or processed under specific cases, and with certain conditions. Requirements of data controller parties under the GDPR include keeping records of their processing activities, adopting data protection policies, transparency with data subjects, appointing a Data Protection Officer, and implementing technical safeguards to mitigate security risks.


In Australia, it is a chargeable offense to look at private or classified material.[citation needed]


Privacy rights have been applied to China.[24] However, in many cases these rights have been overlooked. China regularly spies on its citizens, largely through mass surveillance and CCTV. China has also been known to censor historical events that put the government of China in a bad light.[citation needed]


A nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice J.S. Khehar, ruled in Justice K. S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) and Anr. vs Union Of India And Ors. on August 24, 2017, that the Right to Privacy is a fundamental right for Indian citizens under the Constitution of India (mostly under Article 21 and additionally under Part III rights). Thus no legislation passed by the government can unduly violate it. Specifically, the court adopted the three-pronged test required for the encroachment of any Article 21 right – legality-i.e. through an existing law; necessity, in terms of a legitimate state objective and proportionality, that ensures a rational nexus between the object of the invasion and the means adopted to achieve that object. This clarification was crucial to prevent the dilution of the right in the future on the whims and fancies of the government in power.[25] The Court adopted a liberal interpretation of the fundamental rights in order to meet the challenges posed an increasing digital age. It held that individual liberty must extend to digital spaces and individual autonomy and privacy must be protected.[26]

This ruling by the Supreme Court paved the way for decriminalization of homosexuality in India on 6 September 2018, thus legalizing same-sex sexual intercourse between two consenting adults in private.[27] India is the world's biggest democracy and with this ruling, it has joined United States, Canada, South Africa, the European Union, and the UK in recognizing this fundamental right.[28]

The new data sharing policy of Whatsapp with Facebook after Facebook acquired Whatsapp in 2014 has been challenged in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court must decide if the right to privacy can be enforced against private entities.[29]


In 2005, students of the Haifa Center for Law & Technology asserted that 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.[30] Other experts, such as William 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.[30] 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.[30]


The Russian Federal Law of Personal Data was implemented on July 27, 2006. Its main target is to protect individuals' personal data. On March 1, 2021, the new amendment came into effect. Consent from the data subject is required if the data operator wants to use the data publicly. [31]

United States[edit]

The Constitution and United States Bill of Rights do not explicitly include a right to privacy.[32]

The Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965) found in that the Constitution guarantees a right to privacy against governmental intrusion via penumbras located in the founding text.[33]

The 1890 Warren and Brandeis Harvard Law Review article "The Right To Privacy" is often cited as the first implicit finding of a U.S. right to privacy.[7]

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, 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.

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.

The four privacy torts above were introduced by William Prosser in his California Law Review article titled "Privacy" in 1960.[34] Some argue that these torts, along with the "Right to Privacy" article by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis form the basis for modern U.S. privacy legislation.[35]

Mass surveillance[edit]

Governmental organizations such as the National Security Agency (NSA), CIA, and GCHQ amongst others are authorized to conduct mass surveillance throughout other nations in the world. Programs such as PRISM, MYSTIC, and other operations conducted by NATO-member states are capable of collecting a vast quantity of metadata, internet history, and even actual recordings of phone calls from various countries.

Domestic law enforcement at the federal level is conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, so these agencies have never been authorized to collect US data.[36]

After the September 11 attacks, the NSA turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens.[37]

In March 2013, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence at the time, testified under oath that the NSA does not "wittingly" collect data on Americans. Clapper later retracted this statement.[38]

The Government's own Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) reviewed the confidential security documents, and found in 2014 that the program did have "a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference" in counterterrorism or the disruption of a terrorist attack.[39]


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 has 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.

Publication of private facts[edit]

Publication of private facts speaks of the newsworthiness of private facts according to the law and the protections that private facts have.[40] If a fact has significant newsworthiness to the public, it is protected by law under the freedom of the press. However, even if the fact is true, if it is not newsworthy, it is not necessarily protected. Digital Media Law Project uses examples such as sexual orientation, HIV status, and financial status to show that these can be publicly detrimental to the figure being posted about.[40] The problem arises from the definition of newsworthiness.


According to Digital Media Law Project, the courts will usually side with the press in the publication of private facts.[40] This helps to uphold the freedom of the press in the US Constitution. “there is a legitimate public interest in nearly all recent events, as well as in the private lives of prominent figures such as movie stars, politicians, and professional athletes.”[40] Digital Media Law Project supports these statements with citations to specific cases. While most recent events and prominent figures are considered newsworthy, it cannot go too far and too deep with a morbid curiosity.[40] The media gain a lot of leverage once a person becomes a prominent figure and many things about their lives become newsworthy. Multiple cases such as Strutner v. Dispatch Printing Co., 442 N.E.2d 129 (Ohio Ct. App. 1982)[41] show that the publication of a person's home address and full name who is being questioned by the police is valid and “a newsworthy item of legitimate public concern.” The last part to consider is whether this could be considered a form of doxxing. With the court upholding the newspaper's right to publish, this is much harder to change in the future. Newsworthiness has much around it that is held up by court rulings and case law. This is not in legislation but is created through the courts, as many other laws and practices are. These are still judged on a case-by-case basis as they are often settled through a lawsuit of some form.[40] While there is a fair amount of case law supporting newsworthiness of subjects, it is hardly comprehensive and, news publications can publish things not covered and defend themselves in court for their right to publish these facts.


Private sector actors can also threaten the right to privacy—particularly technology companies, such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Yahoo that use and collect personal data.

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[42] has raised certain personal privacy concerns.[43]

The right to privacy and social media content laws have been considered and enacted in several states, such as California's “online erasure” law protecting minors from leaving a digital trail. However, the United States is still far behind that of European Union countries in protecting privacy online. For example, the “right to be forgotten” ruling by the EU Court of Justice protects both adults and minors.[44]

Protection of minors[edit]

United Kingdom[edit]

Laws and courts in the UK hold up the protection of minors in the journalistic space. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) in the UK have shown that the usage of footage of a 12-year-old girl being bullied in 2017 can be retroactively taken down due to fears of cyber-bullying and potential harm done to the child in the future.[45] This was after the Mail Online published the video without any attempt to hide the identity of the child. Following the newsworthiness point, it is possible that content like this would be allowed in the United States due to the recentness of the event.[40] Protection of minors is a different matter in the United States with new stories about minors doing certain things and their faces are shown in a news publication. The Detroit Free Press, as an example, chose to do a hard-hitting story about prostitution and drugs from a teenager but never named her or showed her face, only referring to her and the “16-year-old from Taylor”.[46] In the UK, During the case of Campbell v MGN, Lord Hope stated that the protection of minors will be handled on a case-by-case basis and affected by the child's awareness of the photo and their expectation of privacy.[45] Many factors will be considered such as the age of the children, activity, usage of real names, etc.[45]

United States[edit]

The protection of minors and children in the United States often falls on the shoulders of The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).[47] This protects any children under the age of 13 from the collection of their data without the parent's or guardian's permission. This law is the reason why many sites will ask if you are under 13 or require you to be 13 to sign up. While this law is good for protecting children's information, it fails to protect the information of anyone older than 13. It also begins to overlap with other privacy protection laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA)

See also[edit]



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External links[edit]