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Advanced Technology: Privacy Protection And Intrusions

Alan F. Westin's Privacy and Freedom (1967), a comprehensive work whose descriptions of privacy states and functions are cited and elaborated upon by most subsequent writers on privacy, was prompted by concern about new technologies for invading privacy in the hands of government and commercial agencies. As professor of public law and government at Columbia University, Westin occupied an influential position from which to propose changes in U.S. law. Calling for greater protection to the ordinary citizen, Westin pointed out that the tradition of limiting the surveillance powers of the authorities over the private activities of individuals and groups goes back to ancient Greece. He then dedicated over a decade's research to collecting data and investigating attitudes towards privacy in the United States.

In Databanks in a Free Society (1972), one of the first books linking data collection with privacy, Westin and his co-author Michael A. Baker found that the scope of information collection about individuals had not yet significantly expanded as a direct result of computerization, but a National Science Foundation conference in 1979 in which Westin was a key speaker concluded that this was no longer the case. A Harris survey directed by Westin in 1979 on attitudes towards privacy in the United States, which addressed the potential abuse or misuse of personal information by business or government, identified growing public concern about the perceived erosion of privacy in the early 1970s in the United States.


Producing an adequate definition of privacy is one of the most intractable problems in privacy studies. A University of Edinburgh Ph.D. dissertation by Katherine J. Day, "Perspectives on Privacy: A Sociological Analysis" (1985), listed more than a hundred examples. One of the oldest definitions remains influential: Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis's 1890 declaration that privacy is the right of the individual to be left alone. However, its negativity and stress on the individual as the locus of privacy have had unfortunate consequences.

Alan F. Westin's 1967 definition of privacy is the most commonly cited, but strictly speaking his is not so much a definition as a two-tier description of privacy states and privacy functions. Julie Inness's 1992 attempt combines the aspects of control over access and the intimate nature of privacy in a three-fold definition, but it requires further definition of what is meant by "intimate" and fails to cope with non-intimate instances of privacy.

Ruth Gavison highlighted the difficulty of legal definitions of privacy in 1980, and Raymond Wacks further explored the issue in 1989. Wacks concluded that the term was so overladen with assumptions and ambiguous in terms of its use that conceptual coherence was an unreachable target. The proliferation of definitions and their unsuitability for legal purposes have therefore led some legal scholars to avoid the term privacy in formulating laws for its protection. It is highly unlikely, however, that the term will disappear from common use, since most people are content to muddle along with an imperfect but workable understanding.

Inspired by Westin's advocacy to make the issue of data protection and privacy his life's work, David H. Flaherty produced two pioneering surveys, Privacy and Data Protection: An International Bibliography (1984) and Protecting Privacy in Surveillance Societies: The Federal Republic of Germany, Sweden, France, Canada, and the United States (1989). The former lists 1,862 Western-language works (books, articles, and government reports) published between 1978 and 1983 concerning Canada, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the rest of the world. An impressive number of U.S. works on threats to information privacy followed, including Managing Privacy: Information Technology and Corporate America (1994) by H. Jeff Smith, Privacy and Its Invasion (1995) by Deckle McClean, The Culture of Surveillance (1997) by William G. Staples, Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape (1997) edited by Philip E. Agre and Marc Rotenberg, and The Electronic Privacy Papers (1998) edited by Bruce Schneier and David Baniser. Most of these works regarded surveillance and data collection as necessary evils in modern life against which the citizen should be warned and equipped with appropriate measures, including individual acts of resistance as well as pressure on corporate and stage agencies.

The most aggressive defense of privacy against intrusion from government and corporate interests was Gini Graham Scott's Mind Your Own Business: The Battle for Personal Privacy (1995). It contains detailed accounts of privacy cases in the United States since the 1960s, relating to employment, police surveillance, media intrusion, medical and health issues, and medical and insurance records. Scott is unequivocally opposed to court decisions that favor employers, the media, schools, the law courts, and the police. He alerts readers to grounds on which privacy may or may not be protected in law, provides an appendix listing computer privacy bulletin boards, and gives his own address for further communication.


The issue of celebrity privacy goes back at least to the nineteenth-century growth of newspapers, but came to dominate discourse on privacy at the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the new millennium. In the United Kingdom, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 was regarded by many as due in part to media intrusion, enabled by the use of new surveillance equipment, and also due in part to press refusal to observe conventions on personal privacy for public figures.

In the United States, President Bill Clinton's impeachment in 1999 for having denied on oath improper sexual relationships became unavoidable when DNA analysis was carried out on his semen. Responding to the constitutional crisis that then arose, Thomas Nagel, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, made a plea for the protection of presidential privacy. In what he called "the disastrous erosion of the precious but fragile conventions of personal privacy in the United States over the last ten or twenty years," Nagel lamented that "American society has lost its grip on a fundamental value, one which cannot be enforced by law alone but without which civilization would not survive.… The division of the self protects the limited public space from unmanageable encroachment and the unruly inner life from excessive inhibition.… The growth of tolerance does not make the collapse of privacy significantly less damaging" (London Review of Books, 4 February 1999, p. 3–6). The support given to the president throughout the unsuccessful impeachment hearings in the spring of 1999 suggests that despite his admissions of wrongdoing, the U.S. electorate sympathized with Clinton's plea that even presidents have private lives.

A transatlantic case that came to trial under English law was the claim for damages by the film stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas against Hello! magazine in 2003. The prosecution claimed that their right to privacy had been breached by the magazine's unauthorized publication of photographs from their wedding. Both sides claimed a vindication of sorts when Zeta-Jones and Douglas were granted the relatively small sum of £14,600 (US$23,360), including £3,750 each for emotional hurt, in compensation for what the judge ruled was a breach of confidence, since the couple had granted publication rights to another publisher. The judge rejected the couple's complaint about invasion of privacy since there was no privacy law in England. Commenting on the verdict, many British newspapers described the issue as one of control rather than privacy, thus illustrating nicely the gap between popular understanding and academic research on privacy.

Compared to the United States, pressure groups in the United Kingdom were slow to react to privacy intrusions. Although one of the first works on the subject, Private Lives and Public Surveillance (1973) by James B. Rule, warned of the consequences, public safety concerns permitted the proliferation of surveillance technology, so that by the end of the twentieth century more closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras were installed in shops and public places in the United Kingdom than anywhere else in the world. A guide to the new Data Protection Act of 1984 by Richard Sizer and Philip Newman noted that the act does not mention privacy as an issue, and that privacy was not a legal right under English law. Attempts to incorporate a bill of rights, including privacy rights, into law in the 1980s and 1990s were rebuffed with claims that English common law afforded greater protection. However, works such as The Governance of Privacy: Policy Instruments in Global Perspective (2002) by Colin J. Bennett and Charles D. Raab show that by the beginning of the twenty-first century the mood had changed dramatically in the United Kingdom as well as in countries throughout the world.

New privacy issues arose in the 1990s with the adoption of DNA technology in preventive and forensic medicine. Mark A. Rothstein's Genetic Secrets: Protecting Privacy and Confidentiality in the Genetic Era (1997) and Graham Laurie's Genetic Privacy: A Challenge to Medico-Legal Norms (2002) are ground-breaking investigations on matters such as the disposal of body parts by hospitals for medical research and the status of the right to know—or not to know—one's individual medical records by the person concerned, by their families, by insurance companies, or by other interested agencies. Public outrage at intrusions into genetic privacy in the United States and United Kingdom demonstrates its close relation to questions of personal identity and the body, an area distinctly more emotional than intrusions via databases, surveillance devices, and Internet tracking. It is hardly surprising that the last three decades before the turn of the twenty-first century saw an unprecedented level of scrutiny of the nature, value, and functions of privacy.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Positive Number to Propaganda - World War IiPrivacy - A Sense Of Privacy, Privacy And Popular Fiction, Public And Private Realms, Rights Of Privacy In National And International Law