The Privacy Act of 1974 provides for disclosure of, and personal access to, all federal records containing personal information, regulates their transfer to others, and allows for legal remedies in cases of their misuse under the law. The Right to Financial Privacy Act (1978) limits federal access to financial records but places few restrictions on access by states, businesses, and others. The privacy of most other information is not guaranteed. Computer and telecommunications advances have made credit, medical, and other data a readily available, highly marketable commodity, raising many concerns about individuals' privacy. Although the European Union in 1998 severely limited the buying and selling of personal data, these practices have been generally allowed under U.S. law. Limits exist on the federal government's ability to intercept voice and data communications; these are established by law and related to the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches (see search, right of).
The right against unsanctioned invasion of privacy by the government, corporations or individuals is part of many countries' privacy laws, and in some cases, constitutions. Almost all countries have laws which in some way limit privacy; an example of this would be law concerning taxation, which normally require the sharing of information about personal income or 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 and very often with specific dangers and losses, although this is a very strategic view of human relationships. Academics who are economists, evolutionary theorists, and research psychologists describe revealing privacy as a 'voluntary sacrifice', where sweepstakes or competitions are involved. In the business world, a person may give personal details (often for advertising purposes) in order to enter a gamble of winning a prize. Information which is voluntarily shared and is later stolen or misused can lead to identity theft.
An example of the legal basis for the right to physical privacy would be the US Fourth Amendment, which guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures",. Most countries have laws regarding trespassing and property rights also determine the right of physical privacy.
Physical privacy may be a matter of cultural sensitivity, personal dignity, or shyness. There may also be concerns about safety, if for example one has concerns about being the victim of crime or stalking.
Various types of personal information often come under privacy concerns. For various reasons, individuals may not wish for personal information such as their religion, sexual orientation, political affiliations, or personal activities to be revealed. This may be to avoid discrimination, personal embarrassment, or damage to one's professional reputation.
Financial privacy, in which information about a person's financial transactions is guarded, is important for the avoidance of fraud or identity theft. Information about a person's purchases can also reveal a great deal about that person's history, such as places they have visited, whom they have had contact with, products they use, their activities and habits, or medications they have used.
Internet privacy is the ability to control what information one reveals about oneself over the Internet, and to control who can access that information. These concerns include whether email can be stored or read by third parties without consent, or whether third parties can track the web sites someone has visited. Another concern is whether web sites which are visited collect, store, and possibly share personally identifiable information about users.
Medical privacy allows a person to keep their medical records from being revealed to others. This may be because they have concern that it might affect their insurance coverage or employment. Or it may be because they would not wish for others to know about medical or psychological conditions or treatment which would be embarrassing. Revealing medical data could also reveal other details about one's personal life (such as about one's sexual activity for example).
Sexual privacy prevents a person from being forced to carry a pregnancy to term and enables individuals to choose to purchase contraceptives without community or legal review
Political privacy has been a concern since voting systems emerged in ancient times. The secret ballot is the simplest and most widespread measure to ensure that political views are not known to anyone other than the voter themself--it is nearly universal in modern democracy, and considered a basic right of citizenship. In fact even where other rights of privacy do not exist, this type of privacy very often does.
As technology has advanced, the way in which privacy is protected and violated has changed with it. In the case of some technologies, such as the printing press or the Internet, the increased ability to share information can lead to new ways in which privacy can be breached. It is generally agreed that the first publication advocating privacy in the United States was the article by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 Harvard L.R. 193 (1890), that was written largely in response to the increase in newspapers and photographs made possible by printing technologies.
New technologies can also create new ways to gather private information. For example, in the U.S. it was thought that heat sensors intended to be used to find marijuana growing operations would be acceptable. However in 2001 in Kyllo v. United States (533 U.S. 27) it was decided that thermal imaging devices that can reveal previously unknown information without a warrant does indeed constitute a violation of privacy.
Generally the increased ability to gather and send information has had negative implications for retaining privacy. As large scale information systems become more common, there is so much information stored in many databases worldwide that an individual has no way of knowing of or controlling all of the information about themselves that others may have access to. Such information could potentially be sold to others for profit and/or be used for purposes not known to the individual of which the information is about. The concept of information privacy has become more significant as more systems controlling more information appear. Also the consequences of a violation of privacy can be more severe. Privacy law in many countries has had to adapt to changes in technology in order to address these issues and maintain people's rights to privacy as they see fit. But the existing global privacy rights framework has also been criticized as incoherent and inefficient. Proposals such as the APEC Privacy Framework have emerged which set out to provide the first comprehensive legal framework on the issue of global data privacy.
Privacy uses the theory of natural rights, and generally responds to new information and communication technologies. In North America, Warren and Brandeis’ assertion that privacy is the “right to be let alone” (Warren & Brandeis, 1890) and focuses on protecting individuals. This citation was a response to recent technological developments, such as photography, and sensationalist journalism . In the 1960’s, new computing and recording technologies began to raise concerns about privacy (Regan, 1995). Privacy can be understood as an individual right: to control the communication of personal information, and as a property right. Privacy is also described as a collective value and a human right.
Each individual is continually engaged in a personal adjustment process in which he balances the desire for privacy with the desire for disclosure and communication of himself to others, in light of the environmental conditions and social norms set by the society in which he lives. - AlanWestin, Privacy and Freedom, 1968
Under liberal democratic systems, privacy creates a space separate from political life, and allows personal autonomy, while ensuring democratic freedoms of association and expression.
David Flaherty believes networked computer databases pose threats to privacy. He develops 'data protection' as an aspect of privacy, which involves "the collection, use, and dissemination of personal information". This concept forms the foundation for fair information practices used by governments globally. Flaherty forwards an idea of privacy as information control, "[i]ndividuals want to be left alone and to exercise some control over how information about them is used" .
Richard Posner and Lawrence Lessig focus on the economic aspects of personal information control. Posner criticizes privacy for concealing information, which reduces market efficiency. For Posner, employment is selling oneself in the labour market, which he believes is like selling a product. Any 'defect' in the 'product' that is not reported is fraud . For Lessig, privacy breaches online can be regulated through code and law. Lessig claims "the protection of privacy would be stronger if people conceived of the right as a property right", and that "individuals should be able to control information about themselves" . Economic approaches to privacy makes communal conceptions of privacy difficult to maintain.
Amitai Etzioni suggests a communitarian approach to privacy. This requires a shared moral culture for establishing social order . Etzioni believes that "[p]rivacy is merely one good among many others, and that technological effects depend on community accountability and oversight (ibid). He claims that privacy laws only increase government surveillance .
Priscilla Regan believes that individual concepts of privacy have failed philosophically and in policy. She supports a social value of privacy with three dimensions: shared perceptions, public values, and collective components. Shared ideas about privacy allows freedom of conscience and diversity in thought. Public values guarantee democratic participation, including freedoms of speech and association, and limits government power. Collective elements describe privacy as collective good that cannot be divided. Regan's goal is to strengthen privacy claims in policy making: "if we did recognize the collective or public-good value of privacy, as well as the common and public value of privacy, those advocating privacy protections would have a stronger basis upon which to argue for its protection.
Leslie Regan Shade argues that the human right to privacy is necessary for meaningful democratic participation, and ensures human dignity and autonomy. Privacy depends on norms for how information is distributed, and if this is appropriate. Violations of privacy depend on context. The human right to privacy has precedent in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers" . Shade believes that privacy must be approached from a people-centered perspective, and not through the marketplace .
Privacy law is the area of law concerning the protecting and preserving of privacy rights of individuals. While there is no universally accepted privacy law among all countries, some organizations promote certain concepts be enforced by individual countries. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 12, states:
Privacy International, a British human rights group, advocates personal privacy internationally. They prepare yearly rankings of privacy protection by country, as well as campaign for privacy in various nations orldwide.
Concerning privacy laws of the United States, privacy is not guaranteed per se by the Constitution of the United States. The Supreme Court of the United States has found that other guarantees have "penumbras" that implicitly grant a right to privacy against government intrusion, for example in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965). Privacy is regulated in the U.S. by the Privacy Act of 1974, and various state laws.
Canadian privacy law is governed federally by multiple acts, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Privacy Act (Canada). Mostly this legislation concerns privacy infringement by government organizations. Data privacy was first addressed with the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, and provincial-level legislation also exists to account for more specific cases personal privacy protection against commercial organizations.
The European Union requires all member states to legislate to ensure that citizens have a right to privacy, through directives such as the 1995 Directive 95/46/EC on the protection of personal data. It is regulated in the United Kingdom by the Data Protection Act 1998 and in France data protection is also monitored by the CNIL, a governmental body which must authorize legislation concerning privacy before them being enacted. In Australia there is the Privacy Act 1988.
Generally, if the privacy of an individual is breached the individual may bring a lawsuit asking for monetary damages. However, in the United Kingdom, it is not possible to bring an action for privacy. An action may be brought under another tort and privacy must then be considered under EC law. Some recent cases involving celebrities such as David Beckham, have resulted in defeat as the information has been determined in the courts to be in the public interest. In the United States, the right of freedom of speech granted in the First Amendment has limited the effects of lawsuits for breach of privacy.
In the United States, Federal law regulating communications carriers prohibits the disclosure of customer phone records. Breaches of this law in the private sector were found to be common, with sales of call detail information becoming the subject of Congressional inquiry. More recently, it has been revealed that the United States National Security Agency has been warehousing the call detail information of billions of individual phone calls for pattern analysis. Whether this was done in violation of law or through powers granted by Congress as part of the broader "War on Terrorism" is the subject of debate.