privacy, right of

privacy, right of, the right to be left alone without unwarranted intrusion by government, media, or other institutions or individuals. While a consensus supporting the right to privacy has emerged (all recently confirmed justices of the Supreme Court have affirmed their belief in the right to privacy), the extent of the right, and its basis in constitutional law, remain hotly contested. It was not until the U.S Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which voided a state statute preventing the use of contraceptives, that the modern doctrine of privacy emerged. In his opinion, Justice William O. Douglas argued that a protection from state intrusion into marital privacy was a constitutional right, one that was a “penumbra” emanating from the specific guarantees of the constitution. The right to sexual privacy as set forth in Griswold was one of the main foundations of the court's decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) to overturn state abortion statutes. Later attempts to extend the right of privacy to consensual homosexual acts in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) were initially rejected by the court. In 2003, however, the court reversed that decision and rejected all antisodomy laws.

At the federal level in the United States, the Privacy Act of 1974 provides for disclosure of, and personal access to, all federal records containing personal information, regulates their transfer to others, and allows for legal remedies in cases of their misuse under the law. The Right to Financial Privacy Act (1978) limits federal access to financial records but places few restrictions on access by states, businesses, and others. Limits also exist on the federal government's ability to intercept voice and data communications; these are established by law and related to the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches (see search, right of). The privacy of most other information is not guaranteed.

Computer and telecommunications advances have made credit, medical, and a wide variety of other personal data a readily available, highly marketable commodity, raising many concerns about the protection of individuals' privacy. In some cases individuals' privacy is compromised not through sale of such information but through its theft electronically, often on a massive scale in a data security breach. Although the European Union severely limited (1998) the buying and selling of personal data and later ended (2018) the use of personal information without a person's permission, these practices have been generally allowed under U.S. law and have become fundamental to the operation and viability of many Internet, financial, and other companies as well as political and issue advocacy organizations. U.S. companies that offer services in the EU, however, must follow EU guidelines when dealing with EU residents, and some non-EU firms have extended EU-style protections to all users of their services.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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