Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to stop information about themselves from becoming known to people other than those they choose to give the information to. Privacy is sometimes related to anonymity although it is often most highly valued by people who are publically known. Privacy can be seen as an aspect of security—one in which trade-offs between the interests of one group and another can become particularly clear.

The right against unsanctioned intrusion of privacy by the government, corporations or individuals is part of many countries' laws, and in some cases, constitutions (see privacy laws). Almost all countries have laws which in some way limit privacy, for example taxation normally requires passing on information about earnings. In some countries individual privacy may conflict with freedom of speech laws and some laws may require public disclosure of information which would be considered private in other countries and cultures.

Privacy may be voluntarily sacrificed, normally in exchange for perceived benefits, but often with little benefit and very often with specific dangers and losses. An example of voluntary sacrifice is entering a competition; a person gives personal details (often for advertising purposes), so they have a chance of winning a prize. Another example is where information voluntarily shared is later stolen or misused such as in identity theft.


Privacy and security trade offs

Privacy is one of the areas of security where trade-offs become very clear and apparent. For the collection of taxes it is in the interests of government and, probably, the rest of your society if your earnings and income are well known. On the other hand, that same information may be used to select you or your family as a good target for kidnapping. In these narrow terms, our interest is to keep the information private whilst the government's interest is to obtain that information. In most countries this risk is reduced, but not eliminated, by limiting the number of people with access to taxation information. On the other hand, in some countries, mostly places with a low risk of kidnapping such as Finland, such information is directly accesible to anyone who wishes it.

Census data is another area where such trade-offs become apparent. Accurate data is useful for planning future services (whether commercial or public sector), on the other hand, almost all censuses are released only in a way which does not allow identification of specific individuals. Often this is done by randomly altering the data and directly reducing its accuracy.

On the other hand sometimes false trade-offs are made. Identity card systems which clearly reduce privacy, are often sold as a method of increasing security. Strong arguments have been made by security experts such as Bruce Schneier, however, that these systems in fact reduce security and are a form of "security theatre".

Reasons for maintaining privacy

One may wish to maintain privacy by withholding information from others because of stigma (as in the case of some "closeted" homosexuals), or for protection from the law (as when criminals hide information to prevent others from catching them). Privacy may include preserving modesty and preventing embarassment by keeping others away while naked, using a toilet, or having sex.

Often, information (such as bank account numbers or, in the USA, the Social Security Number) may be used against the owner of the information, for example to commit fraud. By maintaining privacy, information owners hope to avoid this fraud or limit effects from it.

Political privacy

Main article: Political privacy

People may wish to keep their political viewpoints secret for a variety of reasons - political groupings may be able to commit violence either when successful (using the powers of the state) or when defeated (using their own militias for example). This may be uset to punish those who disagree with them. Many people have been tortured or killed for their political views by, for example, dictators, terrorist groups, and often forces linked to democratically elected politicians. The secret ballot, which is common in democratic elections worldwide, is designed to maintain political privacy to limit any discrimination against people who did not vote for the office-holder and to avoid revenge attacks by those who were not elected.

Outing of individuals can be done for several political reasons; either as a negative campaigning tactic designed to lower the outed person's reputation, or by others of a similar sexual orientation who seek openness over privacy.

Medical privacy

Main article: Medical privacy

Information concerning a person's health is kept confidential to the patient. In most countries, the patient must grant access before anyone other than the staff of medical institutions may view the information. The reasons for keeping medical information private may include possible discrimination against people with a certain medical condition. However, it may be illegal to fail to disclose medical information in certain cases (for example, in the United Kingdom in 2001, Stephen Kelly was found guilty of "culpable and reckless" conduct for failing to tell his girlfriend he was HIV-positive before having unprotected sex with her Template:Ref).

Privacy from corporations

Many companies exist which attempt to obtain as much information about customers as possible, through loyalty cards and other kind of customer schemes. This data is immensely valued by other companies, which may pay large amounts of money for access to this information, for marketing purposes (often telemarketing). A huge public backlash against telemarketers led to the introduction of the National Do Not Call Registry in the United States, and similar systems in other countries.

With the increasing amount of e-mail spam being sent, often advertising products for sale, solutions to prevent the loss of privacy (as the spammers use social engineering and other similar practices to keep an up-to-date list of email addresses) have been developed. See e-mail spam for more information.

Laws regulating the use of personal information by companies have diverged significantly between Europen and America with strong regulation in Europe and requirements for explicit permsission before personal information can be reused being standard in the European Union whilst this area is largely unregulated in the USA.

Privacy from government interference

Governments in many countries are given powers to breach privacy. This is often due to criminal investigations, where police are permitted to seize private property from a suspect's house. Telephone tapping, where all information being transmitted over a phone line is secretly monitored, is often permissible for Law Enforcement Agencies although it sometimes requires permission from a court. This can then be used as evidence in trials where it is used to secure convictions against criminals. However, in the past, numerous cases have been overturned in the United States because the wiretap was not legally allowed. Other ways to monitor people include closed-circuit television cameras, which are placed in public.

The desirability of the government monitoring communications, whether permitted by law or not, is a common debate. Organisations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation argue that the right to privacy is an inalienable human right and that it is up to the person whether they should have to disclose information. Other groups, including government agencies like the National Security Agency, maintain that the ability to monitor all communications aids in the prevention of criminal activity and terrorism.

Effects of war upon privacy

During periods of war, systems such as identity documents were introduced, proving the identity of the holder. These were used for security purposes - individuals who did not carry the documents were assumed to be spies and interrogated. In World War I identity cards were introduced in the United Kingdom, however in 1919 compulsion to carry them was removed. They were reintroduced in World War II, but after the successful prosecution of Clarence Henry Willcock for refusing to present his card to the police the law was repealed, in 1952. In this case, Lord Chief Justice Lord Goddard commented that identity cards "tend to make people resentful of the acts of the police".

Rights of the individual, including habeas corpus, often only apply in periods of peacetime. During the American Civil War in the United States, and during World War II in the United Kingdom, habeas corpus was suspended.

However, since the September 11, 2001 attacks and the "war on terrorism" declared by the United States government, the right to privacy has been legislated against with the introduction of bills such as the Patriot Act, and new government organisations such as the United States Department of Homeland Security, and the controversial Information Awareness Office (which had all funding cut due to protests by the public and the United States Senate). The Labour United Kingdom government introduced a bill requiring all citizens to carry an identity card. It is extremely likely that Labour will introduce ID cards, having been returned to power after the United Kingdom general election of 2005. As of 2005, the right to privacy remains an important point of political debate in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries.

Arguments for government monitoring

  • Increased crime detection - due to the placement of CCTV cameras, the success rate of conviction is increased as criminals are more likely to be convicted due to the increased ability to prove a suspect committed an offence.
  • Prevention of terrorism - terrorist activities need coordination and this is often done using electronic equipment. If communications between devices can be monitored, the activities of terrorists can be prevented before any terrorist attacks are carried out.

Arguments against government monitoring

  • Surveillance infringes on civil liberties - there is a lack of anonymity if facial recognition systems can be used, for example, to identify protestors in a demonstration.
  • CCTV cameras displace crime, rather than eliminate it - criminals move to areas where CCTV is not in place.
  • Monitoring can be used in committing crime, for example Police officers have been caught using cameras to invade the personal privacy of women walking through airports.
  • Gathering data about many people in one place (the monitoring center) provides a valuable source of data for undesirable activities

Privacy laws

Main article: Civil liberties

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in article 12, 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.

Most countries have laws protecting people's privacy. In some countries this is part of their constitution, such as the United States Bill of Rights, and France's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. If the privacy of an individual is breached, the individual may bring a lawsuit asking for monetary damages. However, in the United Kingdom, recent cases involving celebrities such as David Beckham, however, have resulted in defeat as the information has been determined in the courts to be in the public interestTemplate:Ref.

The Supreme Court of the United States has found that the Constitution implicitly grants a right to privacy against government intrusion, in various civil liberties cases, such as Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) (which allowed parents/guardians to educate their children) Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) (which explicitly recognised the right to privacy), Roe v. Wade (1973) (which prevented states from legislating against abortion) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003) (which prevented states from legislating against sodomy). On the other hand, the Supreme Court, in California v. Greenwood (1988), decided that trash does not carry privacy expectation.

As the Constitution does not explicitly grant a right to privacy, this issue is hotly debated - strict constructionists argue that there is no such right, while civil libertarians argue that the right invalidates many types of survelliance, such as CCTV cameras and wiretaps.

Most states in the U.S. grant a right to privacy and recognise four torts:

  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.

Organisations such as Privacy International, a London-based non-governmental organisation formed in 1990, exist as a watchdog on survelliance and privacy invasions by governments and corporations.

See also


  1. Template:Note Landmark Aids case begins in Scotland (, from BBC News (retrieved 26 April, 2005).
  2. Template:Note Does Beckham judgement change rules? (, from BBC News (retrieved 27 April, 2005).

Further reading

  • Dennis Bailey, Open Society Paradox: Why The Twenty-first Century Calls For More Openness--not Less, Brasseys Inc (November, 2004), hardcover, 224 pages, ISBN 1574889168
  • Robert O Harrow, No Place To Hide: Behind The Scenes Of Our Emerging Surveillance Society, Free Press or Simon and Schuster (January, 2005), hardcover, 304 pages, ISBN 0743254805

External links

nl:Privacy ja:プライバシー pt:Privacidade zh:隐私权


  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools