Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > The Right to Privacy

May 28, 2013

The Right to Privacy

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I am a very private person. I won’t tell the cashier at the sports equipment store my phone number. I am not interested in reading the details of people’s daily routines that make up so many blogs. I don’t understand the need to put revealing photographs on public websites. I don’t like to talk about myself, even to friends. So I am completely out of touch with the contemporary Facebook ethos.

Headlines have been made recently by young people who have put obviously incriminating information online for anyone to see. Using Facebook, an Oklahoma mother tried to sell her two babies, so she could bail out her boyfriend, and a Tennessee teacher demanded sex from a student. When a group of teenagers attacked another teen in Chicago last year, punching, kicking and then robbing him, they filmed themselves and posted the video on YouTube. Soon they were arrested.

But these stories of inept criminals are not typical usages of social media. Despite the worries of parents, most teens are careful about what they post on Facebook, and use privacy settings and other means to manage their online reputations. What has changed, to the discomfort of many adults, is the definition of the community in which modern teens, and others, live and share.

Privacy and community are intertwined. We are not disturbed by people within a certain community keeping in contact, knowing about our lives and telling us about themselves. Modern technological culture has already greatly expanded traditional definitions of our communities of privacy. What used to be kept within the family is now known more widely, as we interact with more people over greater distances. The telephone and the automobile have expanded community over the past century. Now the internet has once again burst the accepted bounds of community by allowing and encouraging interactions between people who have never met. Many adults are willing to reveal quite personal information about themselves and their ideal partners on dating sites, and then to meet total strangers in hopes of romance.

Teens may also include strangers in their private communities: about one-third of teens are Facebook friends with people they have never met. Before the internet, this was virtually impossible, except for long-distance pen pals who exchanged letters.

A right to privacy is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” The Supreme Court has assumed a right to privacy in some of its most significant decisions. But the intrusions on our privacy are subtle. Laws require companies to tell us about how they treat our private information, but are not useful in preventing them from ignoring our privacy unless we take definitive action.

For example, tracks which books we look at on their site, and then reminds us the next time we get on what we looked at. Like many of these systems which record what you do on the internet, Amazon’s collection of data about the books you look at, your browsing history, can be turned off by going into your account and following this path: Your › Your Browsing History › Manage Your Browsing History. Such systems are usually not easy to figure out and rarely used.

Amazon’s surveillance of our reading preferences and collection of very personal data might prove useful to us, too. The ability to compile vast data banks offers us unprecedented opportunities to connect or re-connect with people across the planet who would otherwise be impossible to find. Facebook and similar sites link the living, allowing us to find high school friends or long-lost relatives. links past and present: I have found census returns listing my great-grandparents and my mother’s teenage occupation. We may be willing to give up privacy to gain convenience. Traditional ideas about privacy may no longer be relevant.

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