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Chapter 2. Defining Privacy: Social and ... > The Historical Right to Privacy

The Historical Right to Privacy

History has shown us that we care very much about our privacy. In 1361, the Justices of the Peace Act in England provided for the arrest of peeping toms and eavesdroppers. In 1776, the Swedish Parliament enacted the Access to Public Records Act that required that all government-held information be used for legitimate purposes. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically protects territorial and communications privacy. Article 12 states, “No one should be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks on his honour or reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interferences or attacks.” In 1995 and 1997, the European Union enacted two directives to ensure consistent levels of protection for its citizens. The directives set a common baseline level of privacy. The 1995 Data Protection Directive set a benchmark for national laws for processing personal information in electronic and manual files, and the 1997 Telecommunications Directive established specific protections covering telephone, digital television, mobile networks, and other telecommunications. In addition, the U.S. Constitution and subsequent laws have given us a right to be left alone.

If we assume that we have a right to privacy, we then have to figure out where the line is between our right to privacy and the rights of society in regard to having access to our information that would benefit society. Do criminals have a right to absolute privacy, as would a law-abiding citizen? To find that line, we have to look at how society defines privacy issues and how the law defines privacy. Advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) drive privacy laws such as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. This act attempts to determine privacy rights, but it also provides for dissemination of your information. Within the act, it is not illegal for anyone to view or disclose an electronic communication if the communication is “readily accessible” to the public. If you were to post a message to a bulletin board, with your name and e-mail address, this could be considered public access and anyone can use your information from this board. This information will be stored on multiple servers, and people can search these databases of information. Your information can never be retrieved and withheld from the public after you have put it out there for retrieval. Privacy laws have left a lot of room for interpretation, and a great deal of money has been spent on lawyers to argue both sides of the interpretation.


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