An individual’s right to privacy, that is to be confident that the things he wishes not to be exposed to the public will be kept to himself, is an inherent right of his existence, which acknowledgement is well rooted in our Constitution via the Bill of Rights’ 3rd Amendment barring the use of our homes by the government’s soldiers without our permission, the 4th Amendment’s more explicit acknowledgment of our right to “be secure in [our] persons, houses, papers, and effects” against the government’s prying eyes, the 5th Amendment’s self-incrimination bar, and the 9th Amendment’s acknowledgment that any right not explicitly assigned to the government remains in our hands. Those roots are well fertilized by various Supreme Court decisions, including Griswold, Eisenstadt, Loving, and Roe.
Yet there is a growing move to reduce or eliminate that expectation, based on the increasing capability of technology to penetrate that privacy and on our increasing use of social media, and those technologies, to abrogate that expectation. Indeed, questions are asked whether our individual privacy comes at too great a cost, or whether we have too much privacy.
People who want to meet us are only a click away via this or that social media. It’s easy to join this or that group—even a useful group, such as a breast cancer survivor group—and that group wants us to join. Therefore we’re obligated to do so? Suppose we don’t want to meet that person? Suppose we only want to interact with the group through private means and not publicly? Or not at all?
I cannot think how the cost of privacy is too great given the costs from losing that privacy. The question of too much privacy often is grounded in the premise that technology makes it easy to “share” our information, and that today such information has great value. But the question elides certain critical additional questions that must not be ignored.
The ease of sharing as justification for forcing that sharing is on its face disingenuous. As well insist that, since I can pick a locked file cabinet’s lock with a paperclip, I’m entitled (entitled!) to know the contents of the files in that cabinet. Since I can open a door to my neighbor’s house, I’m entitled to enter it without that neighbor’s permission.
As to that value, the questions offered don’t address to whom that value applies. That someone wants very badly, and so that information has great value to him, in no way justifies a requirement on my part to give him that information. My information has value to me, also, and a lot of that value is bound up in the private nature of that information. But I’ll pay a pretty penny, he says. No, say I. I decline to share my information. Why not, he presses. But this question is a non sequitur. Indeed, to paraphrase Sir Thomas More, I will not say, and I will not say why I will not say.
I have no obligation to justify why I wish to maintain my privacy. Indeed, that justification is part of my privacy. But what am I hiding, some might ask. My privacy, I answer. And nothing more.
Why is privacy so important? Honoring another’s privacy is to respect that other. We don’t need to know every inner datum about another just to satisfy our own curiosity. Further, privacy is critical to our liberties. If we cannot be private in our affairs we cannot protect ourselves from an overreaching government. We cannot prepare ourselves to respond to a government that goes too far, even with the best of intentions. We cannot be free in our speech, for instance, if we cannot be private in our preparation of it, if we cannot make our decisions concerning what we will say publicly. Aside from that, we have a property right in our privacy. Any decision concerning the disposition of our privacy, or any part of it, is ours and ours alone.
If we cannot control our own privacy, we have no privacy.
We have transferred to government all the rights concerning our privacy it needs via those 3rd, 4th, and 5th Amendments, wherein we allow the government to penetrate our privacy under certain narrowly circumscribed conditions, with suitable government certifications to a court that the penetration is necessary. No more control need be transferred to government or to our fellows. No more private information need be transferred to government or to our fellows.
The technologies for penetrating our privacy can be valuable tools—get the appropriate court order or warrant and use the very latest technology to pierce the veil of privacy of a suspected terrorist. The social media’s ability to make sharing our information with our friends and acquaintances, and potentially interesting strangers, is enormously valuable in its ability to facilitate the spread of useful information. But that information must be voluntarily given. It belongs to an individual until that individual decides for himself to publicize it.