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Protecting privacy rights

INDIVIDUAL rights to privacy are under fire again, as Curtis J. Sitomer's series in the Monitor this week, ``Privacy and personal freedoms,'' has amply demonstrated. Public concern over use of cocaine, particularly, has led to calls for mass drug testing - with little concern over the damage such tests may do to reputations or careers. Many employers want to give employees polygraph (lie-detector) tests. The technological imperatives of sophisticated surveillance methods have pushed law enforcement agencies into a gray area where it is hard to distinguish alert police work from unwarranted snooping.

Moreover, the kind of information that government agencies glean from having computers ``talk'' to each other may prove more damaging than any gossip that ever passed over a back fence.

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And even the most ordinary citizen who thinks of himself as having nothing to hide may wonder how all those companies that keep sending mail-order catalogs know so much about him.

As society faces these delicate issues of privacy, two important concepts should be borne in mind: trust and balance.

Individuals and society as a whole must learn to cultivate trust that the decisions others reach in the private chambers of their own hearts will indeed be the right ones.

Many of those who would intrude on privacy - by testing schoolchildren for drug use, for instance - are motivated by fear that people will use their privacy to do something bad. But the right to privacy is implicit throughout the Bill of Rights. And surely implicit in that right is the idea that making one's own decision is more important than making some officially prescribed ``right'' decision.

It is the view of many scholars that it is just as well that the constitutional right to privacy is implicit, rather than explicit, like the First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and of the press, for instance. Moreover, the right to privacy is not absolute, unlike these other two; one of its cornerstones is the Fourth Amendment prohibition of ``unreasonable searches and seizures.'' The concept of ``reasonableness'' - what we might call balance - is critically important.

There are trade-offs in a society that has formalized ``safety nets,'' for which everyone pays. A fire hazard in the home that could start a neighborhood conflagration, for instance, is appropriately a concern of the fire marshal.

Some threats to privacy result from new technologies - apparently always a step or two ahead of the law. The new Electronic Communications Privacy Act is a valuable first step, perhaps as much for what it has presumably done to sensitize Congress on the issues as for its legislative content.

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The challenges to privacy rights will change as new technologies and social conditions develop, but the vigilance to protect those rights must be constant.

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