Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Balancing Privacy and Other Rights

The Challenge

Santa Clara University Philosophy Professor Michael Meyer says, "Human beings are entitled to a basic respect, which requires some attention to their privacy." But privacy is not an absolute right. It must be balanced with other important values such as security and free speech.

What's at Stake

Privacy concerns have been at the heart of new HIPAA regulations, which protect medical information; "Do Not Call" legislation which allows consumers to take themselves off telemarketers' lists, and the contested California financial privacy law, which prevents banks, insurance companies, and other financial institutions from sharing or selling their personal information. But sometimes, the need to protect free speech puts limits on privacy. For example, political and charitable organizations are exempted from Do Not Call lists. Also, the federal Patriot Act, passed to address national security, contains provisions that some believe infringe on individual privacy. We need to better define the circumstances under which we want to limit the right to privacy.

Critical Questions

  • The federal government has used its expanded authority under the Patriot Act to investigate alleged computer hackers, drug-traffickers, and child pornographers. While we may abhor these criminals, they are not the terrorists whom the act was meant to curtail. Is this a reasonable extension of the limits on individual privacy contained in the act?

  • Many Americans feel their privacy is besieged by unwanted solicitations—e-mail spam, Internet pop-up ads, telemarketing calls. Are our computers and our telephones extensions of our private space, and do we have a right to be free of intrusions through them? Or is the answer, like the cure for unwanted door-to-door salesmen, simply not answering?

  • Are privacy infringements a classical slippery slope, where a right once ceded is eroded? Or are there bright line differences between gratuitous invasions of privacy and necessary sharing of information?

  • The federal Do-Not-Call list has been challenged on the basis that it exempts political and charitable organizations. Is it fair for commercial telemarketers to be bound by the list while philanthropies and pollsters are not?

October 23, 2003

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