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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Defining Privacy

Defining Privacy

Defining Privacy

As online communication and social media connect us to more and more people, and as various entities collect (and reveal) more and more information about us, a chorus of commentators proclaims that we need privacy—now more than ever. Do we? And what is privacy, anyway?

In 1928, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis defined privacy as "the right to be left alone":

The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. … They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure and satisfaction of life are to be found in material things. … They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the government, the right to be left alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men. 1

According to Brandeis, then, privacy is one of the "conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness." Other scholars and thinkers have identified privacy as one of the conditions necessary for the development of individual identity, for the establishment of intimacy, and for the functioning of democracy.

Focusing in particular on informational privacy, computer scientist Michael McFarland, SJ, has written,

Reverence for the human person … as an autonomous being requires respect for personal privacy. To lose control of one's personal information is in some measure to lose control of one's life and one's dignity. Therefore, even if privacy is not in itself a fundamental right, it is necessary to protect other fundamental rights.

The U.S. Constitution does not mention a "right to privacy"; however, the Ninth Amendment states that "[t]he enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Several states' constitutions (including those of California, Hawaii, and Louisiana) do specifically include protections of the "right to privacy."

When we think about privacy, most of us think about particular limits on what we want others to know about us. Those "others" include governments, but also corporations, teachers, school administrators, parents, siblings, law enforcement agents, classmates, strangers, neighbors, friends. As philosophy professor Judith Wagner DeCew puts it, "Privacy functions, then, to limit external and inappropriate social control…" 2

But how do we decide what is "inappropriate," as opposed to appropriate and necessary "external social control"? There are, after all, some downsides to privacy. For example, the ability to control information about oneself can also enable dishonesty and hypocrisy. Many commentators argue that online anonymity encourages online bullying, and that people should not be allowed to use the mantle of privacy to protect their identities when they are engaged in this kind of antisocial behavior. Others don't want to protect the privacy of criminals or terrorists. Should we then use "external social control" to prevent or punish behavior that harms others, even if that social control lessens our privacy?

Moreover, privacy does not have a single meaning—it is a spectrum that reflects the different levels of trust and intimacy that we have with different people. And different individuals and different groups have different definitions and expectations of privacy. What some cultures, for example, may see as an invasion of privacy, others may see as positive social interaction.

However, the fact that there are multiple definitions of privacy, or even dangers associated with privacy, doesn't diminish the importance of our ability to maintain control over who has what information about us, and for what purpose. It may simply mean that we should have a general, basic level of privacy protection (perhaps with some exceptions built in for law enforcement or national security), beyond which different individuals could put in place further "barriers." The societal protection may be reflected in laws or regulations. The additional barriers would include things like the "privacy settings" that can be customized by users of sites like Facebook or Twitter, the use of encrypted email, or other measurers that individuals can take in order to prevent what they would consider to be invasions of their own customized zones of privacy.

Discussion Questions

Is privacy a right? A luxury? An outdated concept?

Have you ever read a company's "Privacy Policy"? Many websites include a link to one. Find one and read it. Did you find it useful? Why, or why not?

Have you ever felt that your privacy was invaded? Did you take any measures in response, in order to protect your privacy against further similar invasions?

Some scholars note that intimacy is created by sharing some things with certain people and not others; intimacy, then, would be dependent on gradations of privacy. Would increasing loss or limitation of your online privacy impact your intimate relationships? If so, how?

Have you had any experiences that reflected different people's differing expectations of privacy?

1. Dissent in Olmstead v. U.S. (1928) (emphasis added). Since then, the Supreme Court has delineated a constitutionally protected "right to privacy," which includes both an "individual interest in avoiding disclosure of personal matters" and an "interest in independence in making certain kinds of important decisions." Whalen v. Roe (1977).
2. Judith Wagner DeCew,The Pursuit of Privacy: Law, Ethics, and the Rise of Technology. Cornell U.P. 1997.

Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Photo by sarflondondunc under Creative Commons.

Feb 5, 2013