NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Protecting Privacy in a Digital Age

April 1, 2013

With the advent of modern technology, companies now track online consumers' information and the government collects biometric information for various purposes. Policymakers are concerned about limiting this technology and the uses for the information collected. However, the privacy discussion is nuanced and policy must not hinder innovation, says John Stephenson of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

  • Privacy is a vague concept that some consider a fundamental right, though the Constitution does not explicitly mention a right to privacy.
  • As new technologies develop and Internet usage continues to become more prevalent, what is considered private is constantly up for discussion, particularly since the advent of social networking.
  • The concept of what privacy entails on the Internet, and whether it includes consent and sensitive data, is important considering the staggering amount of information that is created every day.

In Europe, privacy is a broad fundamental right that aims to protect privacy against private entities. The European Union defines personal data, imposes obligations on entities that control data and creates several rights for recourse. In the United States, privacy is a right that has developed out of the Fourth Amendment, which grants freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. The U.S. privacy regime is a combination of federal and state government regulations that are typically targeted at specific parts of the government or sectors of the economy.

  • U.S. laws like the Privacy Act of 1974, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the California Online Privacy Protection Act are examples of laws that mandate privacy protections.
  • Besides information on the Internet, privacy concerns extend to the collection of biometric data, which is identification based on an individual's unique physical or behavioral characteristics such as fingerprints.
  • Biometric data will be used more often in the future by the government and commercial applications, but creates concerns because an individual's characteristics change over time.

Policymakers must be careful in crafting privacy guidelines that protect individuals while encouraging the benefits of new technology. For the benefits of individuals and commerce, one set of rules and standards should be established.

Source: John Stephenson, "Abuse and Misuse of Personal Information," American Legislative Exchange Council, March 2013.


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