What Is Privacy?

Privacy is a fundamental right, essential to autonomy and the protection of human dignity, serving as the foundation upon which many other human rights are built.

Privacy enables us to create barriers and manage boundaries to protect ourselves from unwarranted interference in our lives, which allows us to negotiate who we are and how we want to interact with the world around us. Privacy helps us establish boundaries to limit who has access to our bodies, places and things, as well as our communications and our information.

The rules that protect privacy give us the ability to assert our rights in the face of significant power imbalances.

As a result, privacy is an essential way we seek to protect ourselves and society against arbitrary and unjustified use of power, by reducing what can be known about us and done to us, while protecting us from others who may wish to exert control.

Privacy is essential to who we are as human beings, and we make decisions about it every single day. It gives us a space to be ourselves without judgement, allows us to think freely without discrimination, and is an important element of giving us control over who knows what about us.

Why does it matter?

In modern society, the deliberation around privacy is a debate about modern freedoms.

As we consider how we establish and protect the boundaries around the individual, and the ability of the individual to have a say in what happens to him or her, we are equally trying to decide:

  • the ethics of modern life;
  • the rules governing the conduct of commerce; and,
  • the restraints we place upon the power of the state.

Technology has always been intertwined with this right. For instance, our capabilities to protect privacy are greater today than ever before, yet the capabilities that now exist for surveillance are without precedent.

We can now uniquely identify individuals amidst mass data sets and streams, and equally make decisions about people based on broad swathes of data. It is now possible for companies and governments to monitor every conversation we conduct, each commercial transaction we undertake, and every location we visit. These capabilities may lead to negative effects on individuals, groups and even society as it chills action, excludes, and discriminates. They also affect how we think about the relationships between the individual, markets, society, and the state. If the situation arises where institutions we rely upon can come to know us to such a degree so as to be able to peer into our histories, observe all our actions, and predict our future actions, even greater power imbalances will emerge where individual autonomy in the face of companies, groups, and governments will effectively disappear and any deemed aberrant behaviour identified, excluded, and even quashed.

Perhaps the most significant challenge to privacy is that the right can be compromised without the individual being aware. With other rights, you are aware of the interference -- being detained, censored, or restrained. With other rights, you are also aware of the transgressor -- the detaining official, the censor, or the police.

Increasingly, we aren’t being informed about the monitoring we are placed under, and aren’t equipped with the capabilities or given the opportunity to question these activities.

Secret surveillance, done sparingly in the past because of its invasiveness, lack of accountability, and particular risk to democratic life, is quickly becoming the default.

Privacy International envisions a world in which privacy is protected, respected and fulfilled. Increasingly institutions are subjecting people to surveillance, and excluding us from being involved in decisions about how our lives are interfered with, our information processed, our bodies scrutinised, our possessions searched.  We believe that in order for individuals to participate in the modern world, developments in laws and technologies must strengthen and not undermine the ability to freely enjoy this right.

Is privacy a right?

Privacy is a qualified, fundamental human right. The right to privacy is articulated in all of the major international and regional human rights instruments, including:

United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948, Article 12: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1966, 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 or reputation. 2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

The right to privacy is also included in:

  • Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers;
  • Article 16 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child;
  • Article 10 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child;
  • Article 4 of the African Union Principles on Freedom of Expression (the right of access to information);
  • Article 11 of the American Convention on Human Rights;
  • Article 5 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man,
  • Articles 16 and 21 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights;
  • Article 21 of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration; and
  • Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Over 130 countries have constitutional statements regarding the protection of privacy, in every region of the world.

An important element of the right to privacy is the right to protection of personal data. While the right to data protection can be inferred from the general right to privacy, some international and regional instruments also stipulate a more specific right to protection of personal data, including:

  • the OECD's Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data,
  • the Council of Europe Convention 108 for the Protection of Individuals with Regard to the Automatic Processing of Personal Data,
  • a number of European Union Directives and its pending Regulation, and the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights,
  • the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Privacy Framework 2004, and
  • the Economic Community of West African States has a Supplementary Act on data protection from 2010.

Over 100 countries now have some form of privacy and data protection law.

However, it is all too common that surveillance is implemented without regard to these protections. That's one of the reasons why Privacy International is around -- to make sure that the powerful institutions such as governments and corporations don't abuse laws and loopholes to invade your privacy.