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Privacy is understood in western cultures to be something that is removed from public ownership, or access. In a legal context, this generally refers to the public, specifically including the government, not having access to our thoughts, our ideas, our decisions and the process under which we make our decisions. As well, it refers to the right to exchange information about ourselves only with those we choose, including specific aspects of our identity, choices, and even in some cases, such things as our addresses or names. (For example, a person checking out books from a public library has a legal right to not have a list generated of the books he has checked out, but equally, the state cannot generate a list of names of people checking out books.)

The legal right to privacy is not codified in United States Federal law; it is an assumed right, based on an interpretation of the 1st, 4th, 9th and 14th amendments. The first time the concept of a "right to privacy" was articulated in a now-famous dissent Olmstead v. United States (1928) by Justice Louis Brandeis, who argued that the foundation of the U.S. was based in part, on a need to control the government and protect the people from the government. "Discovery and invention have made it possible for the Government, by means far more effective than stretching upon the rack, to obtain disclosure in court of what is whispered in the closet."[1] In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court articulated a position that privacy is an indirect constitutional right when viewed through the language of the First Amendment's "Right to speech and association," the Fourth Amendment's right to "be secure in their houses, papers and effects…," the Fourteenth Amendment's right to due process, and the Ninth Amendment's statement that just because a right has not been delineated in the Constitution, does not mean it does not exist, nor that the Government has a right to infringe upon it. This explanation of the constitutionality of privacy was restated in Roe v. Wade. In the United States, privacy continues to be a hotly debated topic, with "strict constructionists" (including current member of the court Clarence Thomas and the late Antonin Scalia) claiming no such right exists.

In Canada, a legal right to privacy is found in sections 7 (Guaranteeing the right to "life, liberty and security of the person") and 8 (Guaranteeing the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Currently, privacy is a legal and social issue in two primary areas: abortion and the internet.

Abortion and privacy[edit]

Once the concept of privacy was formally addressed in the U.S. courts, it was fully clear that a doctor's relationship with a patient was (or should be) a protected, private act. Griswold was the first ruling to formally make this claim, but using that groundwork, challenges to various state abortion laws attempted to frame the issue on the right to privacy. When Roe v. Wade made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973, the primary legal premise was a woman's right to privacy in her medical choices, including procreation and early term abortions.

The internet and privacy[edit]

Though less of a governmental issue regarding a person's privacy of information, the internet has spawned huge discussions about the nature of privacy. If you post something on a social website, does (or should) that website have the right to share your information with sponsors? With other software companies? What about the government? When you are googling, or even sending Gmail, what are (or should be) the limits of the information they can scrub from your private mails, to target ads directly to you.

In 2011, the United States government admitted to having face-recognition software that would scan Facebook's pictures to find wanted criminals. Technically, the criminal has not been forced to put his images online, so technically it is no more intrusive than someone spotting a man from a "wanted" poster in the Post Office. Technically.

In Europe, however, privacy laws have actually put Facebook "on notice" as violating rights of European citizens.[2][3]


  1. Olmstead v. United States
  2. AAP. "Facebook warned over face recognition app." CIO. 2011 October 23.
  3. Helen Pidd. "Facebook facial recognition software violates privacy laws, says Germany." The Guardian. 2011 August 23.