Home Up
Home Teaching Glossary ARM Processors Supplements Prof issues About

Everyone knows what privacy is, but it is very difficult to define.

We use the term privacy in different ways, and each meaning may have a particular significance in terms of modern technology. For example, privacy can mean the right to be left alone, and this can be interpreted as the right not to receive SPAM or unsolicited Email. Similarly, privacy can mean the right to secrecy which implies the freedom from hacking or eavesdropping (i.e., people reading your files or intercepting your email). Privacy can mean anonymity which is the protection from undesired attention.

Although texts on ethics seem to regard privacy as a right that is less important than the right to freedom of speech, I would disagree. A simple thought experiment will demonstrate why I hold this opinion.   Suppose humanity were granted the gift of unlimited telepathy and we could read each other's thoughts. Life would be intolerable if anyone could read your most intimate thoughts. At the very least it would put politicians out of business and crime would be impossible.

Fortunately, we are not telepathic. But what we do, where we go, what we read, and what we write and all our records are elements of our privacy that can be compromised in the modern world.

If we lack privacy, our behavior is modified. You behave differently when you are being watched. Privacy is important both at home and in the workplace. Few would like to be continually observed by their employer; for example, by having all your email read.

Unlike the freedom of speech that is guaranteed by the constitution in the USA, there is no explicit right to privacy. Some argue that the US constitution does guarantee privacy implicitly because you can't enjoy other freedoms without privacy; for example, the fourth amendment provides protection from searches and seizure of property which implies that you should have privacy at home. It is less helpful when it comes to privacy and the Internet.

The USA has numerous laws in many spheres that do cover aspects of privacy, but there is no specific law that guarantees the right to privacy.

The European Union does, however, have laws that guarantee citizens the right to privacy in terms of data protection.

Privacy and Computing

The issue of privacy arises in several guises in computing. The freedom from intrusion is largely covered by "hacking". Intrusion covers unauthorized access to your computer and its data.

Intrusion also arises when others access either your incoming or outgoing emails.

An insidious form of denial of privacy is the compilation of "patterns of behavior" of unsuspecting people. Data about you is gathered enabling organizations to target you. Few would want an organization about which they know little to gather sufficient information about you to predict your social or spending habits and then to sell this data to other organizations.


US Constitution and Bill of Rights

European Union data protection law

European Union Charter of Rights



Ethical Issues - Privacy