When you hear the word “privacy,” you might think of the desire to be alone when making a personal phone call. You don’t want strangers to overhear you, so you duck into an empty room. Privacy goes beyond your physical space, however. What happens to your phone records and who has access to them is a privacy issue. The same concerns apply to the information stored in the apps on your phone, your internet browser, and so on. It applies more broadly to your life as a whole, as well. As a fundamental right, “privacy” is what lets you establish boundaries to protect your information and your life from unwanted interference.
Why is this so important? And how is privacy protected as a human right?
Why privacy matters
Privacy is all about boundaries and protection, but from who? Any participant in society can violate another’s privacy, but privacy rights are especially important when it comes to entities more powerful than individuals. That includes governments and corporations. Here are three key examples of why the right to privacy is so important:
Governments like to spy on people
Massive government surveillance is a major issue these days. In 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was illegally spying on American citizens. In the years since, entities like the FBI have been caught violating privacy rights, indicating that this is a systemic problem. It’s not limited to the United States, either. “National security” is often given as an excuse, but the right to privacy is clearly being violated in most of these instances.
Corporations like to use your data for their benefit
Governments aren’t the only entities that want your data. Corporations are constantly collecting info to study your shopping habits, what you like and dislike, and more. They often say it’s to improve customer service, but this information can be weaponized, too. Cambridge Analytica is one of the most glaring examples. The organization took data from Facebook – without user consent – and used it to influence voters through political ads. This is a violation of privacy rights. After the story broke, Cambridge Analytica filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2018, while the FTC fined Facebook $5 billion in 2019.
Privacy protects the freedom of thought and speech
The right to privacy is considered fundamental because privacy protects so many other rights. Freedom of thought and speech are just two examples. Without privacy, everyone could be openly monitored and intimidated by much more powerful forces. Critics of the government – such as journalists – could have their computers seized and searched without consequences, threatening the right to freedom of speech. In 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression released a report to the Human Rights Council recognizing the impact of State surveillance on free expression. Without the right to privacy, it would be very difficult to protect freedom.
What international treaties say about privacy rights
It’s clear that privacy rights matter, so how are they defined and protected by international human rights treaties? The right to privacy is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 12 reads: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” Even before the digital age and global concerns about technology-driven surveillance, the authors of the Declaration understood the importance of privacy. Violations of privacy are labeled as either “interference” or “attacks,” which negatively affect a person’s life and threaten their other human rights.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) says almost the same thing in Article 17: 1. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home, or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation. 2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
Other documents reiterate privacy rights, including the United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers (Article 14); the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 16); the American Convention on Human Rights (Article 11); and the African Union Principles on Freedom of Expression (Article 4). Over 130 countries have also added constitutional statements on privacy protection.
The future of privacy rights
Technology is changing quickly. While that represents a lot of opportunities for the world, it also increases the threats to privacy rights. We already discussed surveillance, but attacks against privacy also include data breaches, a lack of transparency regarding the extent of these breaches, and companies that store data avoiding responsibility. In 2020, the UN released a new resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age. It recognized how technological development improves the ability of governments, businesses, and individuals to survey, intercept, and collect data.
The resolution also noted that while everyone’s rights are affected, women and girls are especially vulnerable. In these cases, privacy violations intersect with gender-based violence, sexual harassment, and discrimination. All human rights should expand and evolve with the times, but privacy rights need to evolve at a much faster pace to keep up with technology. No one should need to sacrifice their privacy rights as the price for living in a digital age.