In the terse legal
maxim of Warren
and Brandeis (1890), privacy is simply "the
right to be left alone." More broadly, privacy can be
thought of as describing conditions of limited accessibility
to various aspects of an individual -- both physical and informational.
privacy include the capacity to be physically alone (solitude);
to be free from physical interference, threat or unwanted
touching (assault, battery); or to avoid being seen or overheard
in particular contexts. Privacy also refers to the capacity
to control when, how and to what degree information about
oneself is communicated to others.
A broad range of
social and legal institutions set the terms of privacy, and
societies can and do lay out the boundaries very differently.
New technologies can challenge old understandings of privacy,
as, for example, new computer and communications systems are
The problems posed
by evolving technology are not new: The famous "right
to be left alone" quote comes to us from a world where
privacy was seen as threatened by, among other things, the
technologies that allowed still photographs to appear in mass-circulation
is closely related to privacy, but not identical. It refers
to the obligations of individuals and institutions to use
information under their control appropriately once it has
been disclosed to them. One observes rules of confidentiality
out of respect for, and to protect and preserve, the privacy
can come in the context of an intimate relationship, such
as between close friends. Or they can occur in the context
of a professional relationship, such as that between doctor
and patient. The implicit and explicit terms of the latter
"privacy contract" are conditioned by custom, legal
and regulatory strictures, and professional
The ethical principal
of autonomy or self determination
requires respect for each individuals choices about
uses and disclosures of his/her own information, as it does
for privacy generally. But individual control must obviously
be weighed against other goals achievable only by limits on
Privacy may be
"traded" for truly collective goods -- such as,
in the health sector, use of individual data for medical research,
or to protect unknowable others by mandating reporting of
certain diseases (public health surveillance).
also be presented to each individual -- e.g., the ability
to secure appropriate medical treatment (requiring disclosure
of symptoms and behavior), or to obtain reimbursement from
third-party payers for that treatment.
The concepts associated
with privacy and confidentiality bring forward a very complex
set of considerations, definitions and expectations, which
often complicate the problem of achieving consensus on particular
policies. The definitions here are necessarily brief -- and
would not necessarily secure universal agreement.
is a "right," for example, is a matter of some debate.
Privacy is enumerated as a right in documents such as the
Declaration of Human Rights and the constitutions of many
US states (such as Florida). It does not receive specific
mention in the US federal Constitution, however, though some
feel it is implied within/by the Bill of Rights.