Privacy in a Free Country: In Search of Reasonable Principles

Policy Reports | Privacy

No. 243
Monday, April 30, 2001
by Solveig Singleton


Popular discussions of privacy today are characterized by sweeping generalities. One example is the assertion that people own information about themselves. But if people really owned information about themselves, journalists would never be able to write a story about someone without his or her permission. The idea of "privacy" has not been clearly defined. In casual conversation, "privacy" is a useful umbrella term that refers to all manner of situations where the use of information makes us uneasy. But when used in public policy, the vagueness of the term hinders real problem-solving. Having one's door broken down by police acting without a proper warrant is not like receiving an unwanted advertisement in the mail. Some privacy concerns are serious, but others are spurious.

"We have given the government broader and broader powers to gather information in ways not contemplated in the Constitution."

This paper examines privacy in four different areas - privacy from government, privacy as consumer protection, employer/employee privacy and medical privacy. Only employer privacy and privacy as consumer protection have much in common - both are a matter of contract law where there is no fiduciary relationship between the parties. Privacy from government is a matter of constitutional law, while medical privacy involves the special duties of a doctor to his or her patients.

What each of these areas has in common is a conflict between familiar norms of privacy and the pace of technological and cultural change. Yet we must still distinguish real harms from red herrings. Privacy red herrings will lead only to more red tape for business and higher costs for consumers. Targeted solutions to real harms are far superior. Only the case of government - which enjoys broad, unique powers - calls for omnibus prophylactic measures.

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