Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

Everybody has information, activities, thoughts and events from their lives that they'd rather keep to themselves. Unfortunately for them, corporate marketeers, government security forces and criminals, both amateur and professional, are working hard to uncover and exploit these secrets. While it's clear that some information of this sort needs to be uncovered for the common good (news of an impending terrorist attack, for example), this need is sometimes invoked as a pretext for trampling on privacy protections. Without adequate safeguards, dictators and other authoritarians (including many in putatively democratic societies) spy on critics of their regimes, an activity that can result in harassment or even torture or death of the critics in many places around the world.


Legitimate governments, civil society, and concerned individuals must work together to prevent the all-too-common privacy abuses where the powerful prey upon the less powerful. In what the Kinks call "the wonderful world of technology" the basic ingredients including massive amounts of personal information in digital form, ubiquitous communication networks and inexpensive and miniscule surveillance devices, coupled with the social equation of eager snoops and unsuspecting dupes, has helped create an explosion of privacy abuses and the potential for untold others. The fact that human identities themselves are now routinely "stolen" reveals the severity of the threat and how much "progress" is being made in the advancement of privacy abuse.


In 1763, the noted English Parliamentarian William Pitt in his "Speech on the Excise Tax" declared that "The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter; the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement."

Now nearly 250 years after Pitt's speech modern day rulers use technology to easily enter the tenements, both ruined and intact, of millions of people without a warrant or the problems associated with actual physical entrance. In the campaign to re-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governor's office in California, according to Michael Blood (2006), "The Schwarzenegger campaign has stockpiled millions of names, phone numbers and addresses with consumer preferences, voting histories and other demographic information." Then, based on assumptions about consumer preferences (a Democrat, for example, is more likely to drive a hybrid vehicle, while a Republican is more likely to drive a pickup truck or Cadillac), they employed "microtargeting" to carefully craft messages to appeal to the people they believe they now understand based on their interpretation of the data. According to Blood, "The idea is an outgrowth of techniques that businesses have long used to find new customers. ... Few people might realize how much information is publicly available, for a price, about their lifestyles. Companies collect and sell consumer information they buy from credit card companies, airlines and retailers of every stripe."

Why is technology so crucial — and so threatening right now? The quick answer is plenty of product and buyers. The laundry list of new technology is growing daily and institutions are not afraid to (ab)use it. Some, if not most, of the technology is plagued by problems that are either "built-in" (or otherwise inherent or inevitable) to the technology and/or subject to misuse. "Face recognition" software, at least currently, falls into the first category. John Graham, for example, of the Giraffe Project, faced a problem in the second category when his name showed up on the U.S. "No fly list" for no discernible reason. After several letters to the government he finally received word that his "identity has been verified," meaning, presumably that yes he is the "John Graham" in question. Currently his name has not been removed from the list, whether this is attributable to incompetence, work overload, or basic mean-spiritedness is not easily determined.

According to Privacy International,

"Privacy is a fundamental human right. It underpins human dignity and other values such as freedom of association and freedom of speech. It has become one of the most important human rights of the modern age.

Privacy is recognized around the world in diverse regions and cultures. It is protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and in many other international and regional human rights treaties. Nearly every country in the world includes a right of privacy in its constitution. At a minimum, these provisions include rights of inviolability of the home and secrecy of communications. Most recently written constitutions include specific rights to access and control one's personal information. In many of the countries where privacy is not explicitly recognized in the constitution, the courts have found that right in other provisions. In many countries, international agreements that recognize privacy rights such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the European Convention on Human Rights have been adopted into law."

The organization also points out that "The recognition of privacy is deeply rooted in history. There is recognition of privacy in the Qur'an and in the sayings of Mohammed. The Bible has numerous references to privacy. Jewish law has long recognized the concept of being free from being watched. There were also protections in classical Greece and ancient China.

Although privacy is seen as a fundamental and universal right, it's not easily to define. For one thing, it does depend to some degree on culture and context. New communication technology as well as new surveillance technology has shown also that privacy — and the threats to it — also change over time. Generally speaking, "privacy protection is frequently seen as a way of drawing the line at how far society can intrude into a person's affairs" (Privacy International, ____). United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis explained privacy simply as the individual's "right to be left alone."

Privacy can be divided into the following separate but related concepts (Privacy International, 2006):

Information privacy, which involves the establishment of rules governing the collection and handling of personal data such as credit information, and medical and government records. It is also known as "data protection";
Bodily privacy, which concerns the protection of people's physical selves against invasive procedures such as genetic tests, drug testing and cavity searches;
Privacy of communications, which covers the security and privacy of mail, telephones, e-mail and other forms of communication; and
Territorial privacy, which concerns the setting of limits on intrusion into the domestic and other environments such as the workplace or public space. This includes searches, video surveillance and ID checks.

Each of the types of privacy concept mentioned above has a variety of ways in which the privacy can be abused or invaded. What can be done to stop or slow down these abuses? You can spy on some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time. You can't spy on all of the people all of the time… yet.

The ultimate aim is self-restraint where government and other groups and institutions that have a propensity o invade privacy stop doing it. Whether apocryphal or not, there was a feeling that "Gentlemen don't read other people's mail." Although it's not always obvious, there are always (presumably) limits to what people or institutions do that are either self-imposed by habit or by fear of retribution or other penalties.

Unfortunately it's not the case that people should just trust governments or businesses or other people or institutions who might feel obliged to invade your privacy. What can individuals do to protect their rights? And what can individuals do to get out from problems where privacy has already been invaded? As individuals and as members of organizations (like the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Privacy Information Center, and Privacy Rights International) who stand up for privacy rights we must anticipate abuses, monitor powerful (and otherwise snoopy), develop policy, negotiate and engage with authorities (law enforcement, legislators), redress abuses. There are many ways in which people can — and should — take personal initiative. These include encrypting e-mail, shredding, protecting yourself from identity theft; and, generally, falling for scams. Initiating lawsuits against the government and corporations for breaches in privacy can be an effective tool of the citizenry in behalf of privacy although ideally it would be much preferred if these institutions could be counted on to police themselves adequately.

The idea that "an innocent person has nothing to fear" is an illusion. Worse, it shows a lack of knowledge that is almost breathtaking. If privacy is the "right to be left alone" then different people will have draw different boundary lines — but everybody will draw one. On the other side of that boundary are institutions and people who will cross that line if they are emboldened to do so. There are also of course times when government or police are legitimately obligated to cross that line, but they will need to do so in a manner that is legitimate for the times. There is never a time when there is no line. Thus privacy is important to everybody in the world. It is also an important policy to consider for groups of people as well. When, for example, would it be necessary to forcefully bring a small group that existed communally for centuries into a cash economy. When is it ethically acceptable to bring the "word of god" (one of them at least) to people of another religion? When does one bomb a country to bring the benefits of democracy to it?

We'd like to think that people would not have to resort to extraordinary measures to protect themselves from privacy intrusion and invasion After all, in the "best of all possible worlds" people wouldn't bother about privacy. Fortunately we don't live in the best of all possible worlds. There is ample evidence in fact that the assault on privacy has only just begun. There are a number of problems that are simply "waiting to happen" Google, for example, owns an immense amount of information about virtually everybody who has ever searched for anything online. While it may be true that, as their mission statement states, they'll "do no evil," how can we be sure about the company in five or ten years time. And just as spammers keep finding way to send electronic dreck, the unethical collection of personal information may be done by new types of spybots, which could be part of e-blackmail rackets, possibly in conjunction with faked digital evidence. Although some people have less reason to fear government, business or criminal impinging on their privacy we all face problems, real and potential of abuse. For that reason privacy rights are often strongly associated with human rights, for example. Privacy is not just an issue for dissidents or political activists.


We are all living in an era when new technology and security concerns — both genuine and feigned — raise tremendous threats to privacy. The threat is real and the struggle against it must be equally as strong. Be cognizant of the critical importance of privacy and work conscientiously on all fronts to protect privacy rights. Public education is important in this area as are public campaigns against privacy invaders.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Everybody has information, activities, thoughts, and events that they'd rather keep private. But marketeers, security forces, and criminals are uncovering and exploiting these secrets, leading, sometimes to harassment or even torture or death. We need to be aware of the importance of Privacy and work to protect privacy rights and resist privacy invaders.

Pattern status: 
Information about introductory graphic: 
John Thomas