Why Privacy Matters

Privacy and Security

Article Snapshot


Neil Richards


Oxford University Press, 2021


Privacy is not dead. Privacy rules are increasingly critical to protecting individual autonomy and political freedom, and to consumer protection.

Policy Relevance

Privacy rules should apply to the private sector. Information may be private even if it has been shared with third parties.

Main Points

  • Privacy rules concern the flow of information about human lives, beliefs, hopes, and actions; privacy is not dead, nor should it be.
  • Privacy should not be absolute; privacy is not an intrinsic good, valuable in itself, but is an instrumental good, valuable insofar as it promotes our values and wellbeing.
  • The idea that once information is shared with a third party it can no longer be private is overly simplistic; shared data (including the metadata generated by electronic communications) can remain confidential, as do medical records.
  • Privacy is not fundamentally about the “creepiness” of some types of surveillance, as our feeling that some surveillance is “creepy” is subjective; rather, privacy is about power, and power may be exerted over individuals whether they feel something is creepy or not.
  • Privacy promotes three important values:
    • Our identity and autonomy, including formation of our political and religious beliefs.
    • Democratic freedom, especially political freedom from the power of the state.
    • Protection from discrimination and from manipulation by commercial interests.
  • Privacy should be recognized as a fundamental right and protected against intrusions by the government or by the private sector; the failure of the United States Congress in 1974 to ensure that privacy rules apply to the private sector was a grievous error.
  • Policymakers and courts should ensure that the Fourth Amendment continues to protect privacy as technology changes; outdated wiretapping laws should be revised.
  • States should be permitted to experiment with strong privacy protections, as California has done.
  • Privacy rules should not assume that all individuals enjoy autonomy and are able to exercise choice; rules should protect the most vulnerable.
  • Human information and the ability to control it are increasingly important; privacy has become critical to determining how we will live our lives.

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