The Right to Privacy
Thursday, January 26, 2012 -- 4:00 PM
John Perry

This week we’ll be asking about the Right to Privacy.   

This is one of those times when we need to start by disentangling concepts. We use ‘private’ and ‘privacy’ in several different ways.  Both words derive from ‘privus’ in Latin which means `single’ or `individual’.  Being private is usually opposed to being public; privacy means withdrawn in one way or another from the public.

In philosophy, we often say that one’s inner mental life is private, which means only you can know what you are thinking and feeling. Other people don’t have the same kind of direct access to your thoughts and feelings as you do.

I don’t need to do anything special in order to keep my thoughts private in this way. I don’t really withdraw them from the public; they come to me already private.  But that’s not the case with most other things. You put curtains in your bedroom to keep what goes on there private. You put a fence around your house, to keep nosy neighbors out.

That’s because you consider your home your private sphere, a space where you can do what you want without anybody watching or interfering. It’s a place where you expect to be able to do what you want without fear of being “molested” by others, as John Stuart Mill put it. That’s one kind of privacy we take measures to protect. And we might ask whether we have a right to that particular kind of privacy.

There’s also another important sense of privacy, which is about access to information. We like to be able to control and limit the access others have to our personal information. For example, I lock my diary, and password protect my financial files.  We  like to control who can access our personal information. And we also like to control how personal information can be used when it is accessible. 

So, we want privacy, in the sense of having some control about what others know about us. And we want privacy, in the sense of being left alone, to make our own decisions. I’m wondering what these different senses of privacy have in common. Do they have a shared source?

I think both stem from what it is to be a human being. Humans come with individual properties that make them different from one another--their own beliefs, desires, values. And they come with the power to decide for themselves what to do, and to control their bodies on the basis of these decisions. Both concepts of privacy recognize basic aspects of what it is to be a human being.

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, or is it simply based upon human individuality and autonomy?  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?

This depends both on what your purposes are in prying into my personal business, and also what I’m up to in private. We do recognize certain circumstances in which the government can violate your privacy; for example, when there’s evidence that what you’re doing could lead to some significant danger or harm to others.  It seems that the right to privacy, if it is a right at all, is not absolute. There are some conditions when it’s okay to violate a person’s privacy. 

Doing so has gotten easier with modern technology--bugging equipment, GPS devices, cameras everywhere. It seems like our expectation of privacy is also changing as a result of these advances in technology, which in turn seems to be leading to our rights slowly being eroded.  Will kids who grow up exposing their inner thoughts and private photos on Facebook, tweeting or twittering or whatever it is every time they scratch their heads or pick their noses, have any expectation of privacy as adults? 

Comments (16)


Guest

Thursday, January 26, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I think you have addressed

I think you have addressed the matter of privacy before in this blog. Maybe yes;maybe no. In either case, I have said privacy is dead. Even wrote an essay about that. Rights? What are those, in a world where natural selection rules. Your previous, regarding democracy is just another tile in the mosaic. Bill of Rights; Ten Commandments---these tenets and many others are merely contrivances, designed to coerce humans into behaving correctly---equitably---ethically---morally, and most of all: persuading us, somehow, that it is not in our best interests to willy-nilly, kill each other. We ain't listening. Or, we could be listening, yet refusing to hear. Give a listen to the pop tune by Mike and The Mechanics: The Living Years---it says a lot in fewer than four minutes. To me, anyway.

Guest

Saturday, January 28, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Not said, how Facebook's sea

Not said, how Facebook's sea change was not social networking per se - that was old - it was that its users began using their REAL NAMES. Consider Facebook's predecessor, MySpace, where users would create catchy handles, for example, 'CorgiFan'. That's way more under the radar, than say, Joan Smith on Facebook, where anyone can find her just by entering her name in the search. Interesting, no?

Guest

Saturday, January 28, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Where does the concept of

Where does the concept of personal privacy intersect with the idea of larger issues of social benefit, especially when there is a conflict between the two? One example of this is the use of surveillance cameras for public safety conflicting with the individual's anonymity.
However, this show brought up another interesting case. In the discussion of smart meters as an invasion of personal privacy, another side of this issue is the intent to optimize and reduce utility usage. And there is certainly a valid argument to be made that this is an issue of larger social need in terms of climate issues and energy independence. Individuals' energy usage habits impact everyone, so where does someone's right to privacy collide with another's right to live in a healthy environment?
In an example like this, is the real issue an insistence that an individual's right to privacy outweighs all of our rights to a decent environment? Or does this come back to fear of what might be done with the collected data outside of the context in which it is collected? And does that imply that the issue is not really an issue of privacy but rather of responsible use of private data?

Guest

Saturday, January 28, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

One thing that was brushed

One thing that was brushed aside, albeit i hope unintentionally, by one of your speakers, suggesting the need for agreement or consent (can't remember which term was used) to allowing otherwise-private information to be collected or stored indefinitely or shared with others, by non-governmental entities, was striking to me in that no one challenged it, & the speaker seemed to think that requiring "consent" or agreement to disclosure or indefinite storage is a solution.
Hasn't anyone noticed that virtually all corporations use "agreements" that the consumer MUST sign, to get any services or products. Thus, for example, proposing that google can't share its private information collected about you, without your agreement or consent, is a useless right these days! Have you read through the often-tedious, lengthy, & totally self-serving "agreements" corporations from banks to on-line services REQUIRE you to sign before you'll have access to ANYTHING. Have you ever tried to amend the contract or strike the term allowing them to do anything they want with the information they collect on you? Not likely!
These are what i learned in law school to be "adhesion contracts" (or, more formally, contracts of adhesion) -- contracts drafted solely by one side of the "bargain", for their purposes, allowing for no changes by the other party, so that one is forced to agree and has no bargaining power over the terms of the contract. Unfortunately, for anyone concerned with consumer rights, privacy rights, or any other individual rights, the courts have emasculated the doctrine of adhesion contracts (which were originally held to be unenforceable, since they are not real bargains at all, & the ability to bargain for each side's desired terms & to come to what has been traditionally been called, in law, "a meeting of the minds," is a sham). Now almost no contracts are held by courts to be adhesion contracts, no matter how overbearing, no matter that consumers have absolutely no ability to bargain over terms, no matter that consumers have absolutely no ability to refuse to agree to a specific term that is objectionable, such as giving up one's right to privacy.
I mention that because the emasculation of the doctrine that adhesion contracts are unenforceable means that the contracts we are required to agree to by virtually every provider of software, services, internet access, & our ability to save things on the internet or to post anything with an expectation of privacy, requires us to give up any such right. Under your speaker's apparently-progressive proposal, we can agree to give up a right to privacy of the information we, for example, post to facebook or store on the internet; however, the reality is that we must give up that right, to be able to use any of these services. Thus, despite what i trust was a well-meaning proposal, he has offered a right that we could probably never use in the real world!
Why bother proposing any such right, if the proposal allows corporations against which we need to enforce it can require us to "agree" to waive all our rights?

Guest

Sunday, January 29, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I think that searching in the

I think that searching in the constitution for a "right to privacy" is an example of the type of trap feared by some who opposed the Bill of Rights. The philosophical underpinning of the Constitution is the Social Contract: Rights are "endowed by the creator", not granted by the Constitution. The question should not be "where in the Constitution is there granted a Right of Privacy" but rather "where in the Constitution is there evidence that I gave up my Right of Privacy".
Deriving a power to "have a camera on every corner" from a power to "have a policeman on every corner" misses a key point. A human policeman will be forced by his/her own limitations to concentrate on being on the lookout for suspicious activities. The camera "captures all" and the record can be subsequently edited to take incidents out of context creating the appearance of suspicion where none existed. When governments or corporations have unlimited access to easily edited unlimited information we are no longer "secure". If this were not the case the phrase "witch hunt" would not have entered the vernacular.

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, January 30, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Van Pelt has pronounced

Van Pelt has pronounced privacy dead. I think his assessment is not far wrong. OUAT, social security numbers were a contract of sorts between citizens and their government. Now, refusal to disclose one's SSN is tantamount to saying that one does not truly want such things as benefits, privileges and, yes, even that most American of dreams: gainful employment. SSNs were not originally meant to be universal identification---they were a portal to limited, post-productive, existence. Now, they are instruments of piracy of all sorts. "Everything designed by man tends to end in chaos"---I think someone said that; if not, I just did. Something to do with the second law of thermodynamics. Privacy and security are oxymoronic today. And will be tomorrow. And so on---and so on.

Fred Griswold

Monday, January 30, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Regarding whether there could

Regarding whether there could be any such thing as rights in a world where natural selection rules: It seems that a monkey, when practicing a new trick, does not appreciate it when a human horns in before he has it perfected. He'll show signs of embarrassment. Lots of animals make a hiding place for themselves. Dogs bury bones in the ground. Privacy probably has a lot to do with relationships and families, too - it helps provide a secure environment for kids. It sounds to me like there's a good evolutionary basis for a right to privacy. Defining privacy in this real-world context is perfectly OK with me, I don't see why putting privacy on one of those Jeffersonian or Kantian lists of vaguely connected principles would make it any more real. And seeing it in these real-world terms would explain why there is nothing absolute about the right to privacy. My right to privacy ends when I start building a suitcase nuke in my garage.

Guest

Tuesday, January 31, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Privacy on a tiny planet with

Privacy on a tiny planet with 7 billion people,
Hmmm?
Hey, I got it, technology!
Its time you build us another room.
Room for privacy, and more room to grow.
=

Guest

Wednesday, February 1, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Dear Fred:

Dear Fred:
I do not mean to be disrespectful, but---how would anyone KNOW you were building a suitcase nuke, unless someone was watching (somehow), or unless you were bragging about it? Privacy, if it ever existed at all, is/was elemental. Not relative. Not contingent. Monkeys care little for privacy, in any elemental sense. Whether they care about human interference, if true, seems our fault not theirs. Tool usage takes time---lots of it. We now know that certain primates and birds have dabbled, and succeeded. Van Pelt, Neuman and others have figured out that privacy is now irrelevent. But, here it is---in case you have not paid attention: we have, willy-nilly,given our permission to have our privacy removed. There are several combinatory influences, which are inextricable. Popular culture, which we worship. Information Technology, which we cannot live without (Intel; Microsoft; Apple and others have ensured this...), and our insatiable desire for "quick and easy"---re-inforced by the first two categories mentioned.
There is a lot of real money being stolen by our twenty-first century economy. And most of those losing the cash don't even get the fact that they are being fleeced. Keeping up appearances, and all...

Guest

Wednesday, February 1, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I just listened to this show

I just listened to this show and one point that was not brought up is the fact of personal choice to divulge privacy. As an avid user of the internet, and prior to its rise, electronic bulletin board systems, i have a long standing experience with online personal information sharing. Currently, i am a user of several nline services but am choosing to pull myself away from many of these services.
In my opinion, people need to take responsibility for their own choice to allow personal infomation to be shared online. Suring this show, there was a comment about how we can protect our privacy with online diaries. The fact is that you cannot. Period. If you want a private diary, you can choose to use a pencil and paper. They both still exist. Typewriters are another option as is a computer not attached to any network.
Further, if i dont want my 537 friends on facebook to know anything about me, i should delete my account. There is no law that forces us to use online services such as facebook, or web-vased email services. If you want good email privacy, use a pop-based email client with a PGP interface,
My point is that we can still choose our own levels of privacy within the law. I choose to live off grid in a home heated by firewood. I have no land line and use a google phone number as an interface to a variety of pre-paid cell phones. I have no internet connection of my own. I do not carry a cell phone with a gps. I drive an 84 VW withh nop lojack system, etc.
Managing our privacy can be our own responsibility to a large degree.

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, February 4, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

So there it is: Managing our

So there it is: Managing our privacy CAN be our own responsibility, TO A LARGE DEGREE. (emphasis mine, obviously...) This historionistic notion I have been reading about begins to make more and more sense. As I have gleaned bits and pieces of it, the central premise seems to be that we, collectively in the largest sense, have painted ourselves into the cultural corners we now inhabit. And we expect, somehow, that studies in cultural diversity and sensitivity training will somehow make us all sing kum by yah and become true brethern and cistern together. After working in a microcosmic fraction of the world for nearly thirty years, I realized there would be no kum by yah moment. Three years+ into retirement, I see no contradiction of my initial realization.
I used to drive an 83 BMW, which no one but me wanted. I now drive something else---well, we'll see.

mirugai

Monday, February 6, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

JOY OF PRIVACY

JOY OF PRIVACY
Privacy is only of interest to the philosopher in a taxonomic way: of what does privacy consist, how are private acts and thoughts classified, is all thought by definition private, and how to distinguish between the private and the public.
But what most people (not philosophers) mean by consideration of privacy, is of very little interest to philosophy: it is a political question about what a society allows its members to think and do in private, what it seeks to prohibit, and how far enforcement personnel can go in penetrating the private sanctum.
For the most part, the usual private acts and thoughts, if harmful, are only harmful to the private person, and so the punishing society is really after non-victim harms. Acts done to another are by definition not really private anymore. And the prohibiting and punishing of these non-victim harms are the expression of moral opprobrium. In a democracy, morals are enforced as either the position of the majority (a non-philosophical position because ?majority? does not coincide with ?rationality?), or as a minority right which the majority allows the minority out of the majority?s own self-interest (and don?t you forget it!). The only interesting question (though not a philosophical inquiry) is: what is the majority really up to in prohibiting or invading the realm of the private behavior, and what is the likely effect on the citizenry. The effect on the rational person is not worth thinking about.
Philosophers work in private. Privacy is their physical and mental domain. Sure, there are forums and blogs and one radio show, but ideas are formed, and positions are taken in solitude, most often a result of a one-person ?dialogue.?
A philosopher is a person who does philosophy; one who reads philosophy is a philosophy student.
Doing philosophy is sitting and thinking and having internal dialogues. This is private behavior; it is hermetic behavior; if it doesn?t give you joy, you can?t be a philosopher.

DennisCMyers

Wednesday, March 4, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Mr. Stinson writes, "The

Mr. Stinson writes, "The philosophical underpinning of the Constitution is the Social Contract: Rights are 'endowed by the creator', not granted by the Constitution."  No.  The phrase "endowed by the creator" does not appear in the Constitution.  It's from the Declaration.  The founders carefully avoided reference to divinity in the Constitution. What underpins the Constitution is not supernatural endowment but the consent of the governed.

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