What is privacy?

Picture of a pair of binoculars, to illustrate privacy.

Originally published Sept. 2016. Updated in Aug. 2019.

It’s an interesting question: What is privacy?

We Know It When We See—It Or Don’t See It.

Everyone has their own answer to this question. We all make different decisions about what information we reveal. Or who we share information with. We also hide some things from everyone.

Everyone has a slightly different idea on this subject. Sometimes I feel like Justice Stewart. In the case Jacobellis v. Ohio, Justice Stewart struggled to define pornography. In the end, he stated that although he could not adequately define it, he knew it when he saw it. Well, that’s often how I feel about privacy. It’s a hard concept to put into words, but I know it when I see it. Or when I see it violated.

A Right to Be Left Alone

It’s easy to think our privacy is at greater risk today because of technology. However, rapidly changing business methods and technology have always driven this discussion. In 1890 when Brandeis and Warren wrote about a “Right to Privacy” for the Harvard Law Review, their thinking was driven by changing businesses and technology. At that time it was photography and tabloid journalism that was invading private and domestic life.

Their goal was to promote a concept of protection for individuals. Essentially, a right to be left alone. But, this right to be left alone was not absolute. There are exceptions for matters of public interest. Or if a person makes something public.

When does the right to be left alone really matter? It matters when making decisions and when sharing information.

Making Decisions

Privacy matters when making decisions. A person should be free to make decisions. That is to say, they can make intimate personal choices on their own. Without interference. This is being left alone or autonomous.

Protecting Information

Privacy matters when sharing data. A person should be free to decide what data they share. What data, and how much data they share. This is having one’s information left alone.

More to Come

Privacy is complex. Future topics will include the “expectation of privacy” and privacy torts.

Disclaimer: Nothing in this post is legal advice. Before taking action about any matter discussed in this post you should consult an attorney.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *