Is the right to privacy – the right to be left alone and to control one’s personal information – really a right?
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 Being private is usually opposed to being public; privacy means withdrawn in one way or another from the public.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?