A right to privacy in today’s technologically connected world?
We often hear people talk about rights. The right to vote, the right to silence, the right to a jury etc. What about the right to privacy? Does it exist? If so, how can it be enforced? What does one measure it against? The problem with rights are that they set an absolute standard, and in a contemporary world where everything is interconnected; governments refuse to pass legislation creating absolute standards in the field of privacy when their existence often rests upon their ability to encroach on that right.
Privacy is better understood as “an interest that individuals have in sustaining a personal space, free from interference from other people or organisations” (Dr. Robert Clarke).
Broadly speaking, privacy has multiple dimensions. Bodily privacy is concerned with the integrity of one’s body, breached by compulsory immunisation, provision of body samples for DNA and sterilisation. Privacy of personal behaviour, pertinent to political beliefs, religious practices, both in public and in private, is also referred to as media privacy. The third dimension is the privacy of personal communications, which is the innate desire of individuals to communicate with others through various social platforms, without routine (or targeted) monitoring of their communications, by both other people or organisations. Information privacy, or privacy of personal data, is the desire to claim that data about oneself should not be readily available to other individuals and organisations, or in circumstances where it is; the desire to exercise a sufficient degree of control over data about oneself. The most recent, emerging interest is the privacy of personal experience, which is the collation and exploitation of our experiences. During the first decade of the 21st century, there has been an emerging trend towards collecting our telephone conversations for “training and assessment purposes”. Our individual locations are tracked, purchasing habits recorded, the types of newspaper articles we read are being profiled, and this collation of our personal experiences is being exploited by corporations.
The protection of the various dimensions of privacy espoused above is important on many levels. Psychologically, the desire for private space is a time-honoured human need. We need space to be ourselves, to have the freedom to laugh, cry, break wind, burp, have sexual intercourse, raise our children and protect personal belongings. The law, for most part, adequately protects the right to private property, but at present, allows regular encroachment into the privacy within one’s home. Internet companies are allowed and in fact encouraged by governments to monitor viewing history. Calls made to your local utility provider are stored away, and interestingly enough, become the private property of the recorder company. In my first and only attempt to ask for a copy of the recorded telephone conversation in a dispute with a telecommunications service provider, I was persistently told that they would only release the recording under a Court order, which is often impossible to get because one cannot make an accurate assessment about whether litigation is a smart option, in circumstances where you have little recollection, or you will have trouble commencing legal action properly without being fully aware of the representations that were made.
Freedom to socialise with others without the threat of continual observation is fundamental to our ability to build proper relationships with others, as well as being imperative to our own individual growth. Yet, the current legislative regime does not do enough to protect our privacy by not recognising it as a formal right, capable of being legally enforced against those who encroach it, with significant financial and non-financial consequences for breaches.