Violating Your Own Right to Privacy?

As I was getting ready to teach my Critical Inquiry class, I heard a woman outside the classroom carrying on a wicked fight over her mobile phone. I won’t go into the details, but she was “discussing” the various misdeeds of her (presumably now ex) boyfriend. On another occasion, I was walking to my truck and I had to cross by a screaming couple. Again, I’ll leave out the details but suffice it to say that he seemed rather concerned about the other men sleeping with her. Most recently, I heard about Penelope Trunk tweeting about her miscarriage. These incidents all caused me to think “hey, you have a right to privacy…think about using it.” This got me thinking about whether a person can violate her own right to privacy (assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that there is such a right).

On the face of it, it would seem that a person cannot violate her own right to privacy. A privacy violation would seem to require that someone acquire information that they do not legitimate have a right to know and they do so without the consent of the person. For example, someone stealing another person’s diary and reading about their secret hopes and fears would be a privacy violation. When a person knowingly reveals information about herself (such as by being very loud in public, posting it on a public blog or twittering it), then that person has obviously given consent to herself.

However, I think that a case can be made for the claim that a person can violate her own right to privacy. The first step in doing this is arguing that a person can (in general) violate her own rights.  To do this, I will  draw an analogy to suicide.  One reason to think suicide is wrong is that it violates a person’s right to life. Obviously, suicide harms (kills) a person and it seems reasonable to regard this as generally being wrong. To be fair, people do argue that consent to death somehow makes the action morally acceptable but this seems to clearly be a point that can be argued.  Returning to the main point, if suicide is a violation of a person’s right to life, then a person can violate her own rights.

Now, if the suicide analogy is found to be lacking, consider a second analogy involving the right to liberty. It seems quite reasonable to believe that a person who consents to slavery would be violating his own right to liberty. After all, if Locke is right, no one can rightly consent to being owned by another (although he does allow for slavery as an alternative to death). If this line of reasoning is plausible, the same would seem to hold for the right to privacy.

The second step in making my case is establishing that there are some things that should remain private, even if a person wants to make them public. This is rather challenging-after all, most people probably believe that people should be generally free to reveal their secrets even if doing so would be rather harmful to them. In fact, many reality TV shows and tell-all books rely on this view. However, it seems reasonable to believe that there is a category of things that should remain private and should not be revealed to others, even by the person whose privacy is at stake. To argue for this, I’ll appeal to the arguments for privacy and claim that these same arguments should also apply to the person in question. After all, if certain things should not be revealed by others, it seems reasonable to think that there are at least some things that should not be revealed by anyone. That is, that there are things that should be regarded as inherently private and not shared with the public.

If both of these steps work, then a person could violate her own right to privacy by making public what should be kept private.

I freely admit that my case for this is rather weak and that there are strong intuitions that folks have the right to reveal whatever they wish about themselves (naturally things change when the privacy of other people is involved as well). However,  it is not unreasonable to think that people can thus violate their own right to privacy by revealing  what should not be public. In any case, I look forward to comments that expose the errors in my line of reasoning.

If my previous line of reasoning is faulty, I have  second approach that I believe can produce a similar result. The idea is that while people have a right to privacy, people also have a right to sort of a reverse privacy. To be clearer, I mean that people have a right not to hear about certain things from other people. So, while someone might not violate her own right to privacy by twittering or yelling about private matters in public, such actions could be seen as violating the right of others not to be exposed to such things. My reason for this is that I think it is wrong for people to inflict their private matters onto the public without the consent of the public. When I am getting ready for class or walking to my truck, I think I have the right not to hear about the sexual activities of strangers. That is, I think I have a right to not have other folks private matters forcible entering my life.

Twitter, blogs and such are a quite a different matter. In these cases, people knowingly expose themselves to mediums that are often used to reveal private matters to the public and, of course, people can easily avoid those known to deal in such content.

In the  specific case of Twitter, people need to intentionally expose themselves to tweets. Since Twitter is well known for folks spilling private matters, people have no expectation that they will not be exposed to such things (this can be seen as a twist on the idea that there are situations in which people have no expectation of privacy). This is why I am not participating in Twitter. As I see it, Twitter is an unholy blend of narcissism and voyeurism that I would rather not invite into my life. But I do appreciate the fact that it does sometimes provide me with things to blog about.

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  1. I think under your analysis of rights, that the woman talking on the phone in the public was perhaps violating her own right to privacy, assuming that if you went up to her afterwards to discuss what she had openly announced to everyone that she’d be embarressed and wished that you had not eavesdropped on her very public conversation….

    But I’m dubious on the idea that we can violate our rights. The suicide example is incredibly dubious, as euthanasia cases show. The slavery case is a little stronger, but people seem to consent to all sorts of legal bondage all the time. Its only incremental steps to slavery from there.

    I think more closely, the person is simply failing to exercise their right, rather than violating their own right. I can fail to exercise my right to free speech, by keeping quiet. Similarly there are cases in which I want to exercise my right to privacy, and cases when I don’t.

  2. What’s more interesting to me is any privacy violations in the EULA’s/terms & conditions when signing up to these social apps like Facebook + Twitter.

    Does anyone even read those? What is protected by law? What are they mining about you when you update your profile?

  3. This all seems to depend on whether one’s natural rights can be waived. If they can, then by deciding to gnatter loudly in public (or jump off a skyscraper) would the right to privacy (or life) not be waived? Since the decision must precede the action then the waiving would precede any possible violating, and no violation would occur. (If we don’t actually make free deicisions then the whole question is moot)

    If natural rights can not be waived, then one can violate one’s own rights, but I have no idea whether natural rights can or can’t be waived. Does anyone out there have a theory?

  4. I think the answer to this question is simple. The people described are just thoughtless ill mannered and probably, where possible, best avoided. They in all likelihood, are violating their privacy, a side effect of their own inconsiderate behaviour.

  5. I work for the NHS as a community mental health nurse so ‘privacy’ in the forms of confidentiality and security, consent are fundamental to the role. I wonder about the role of personal electronic health records and how their use may erode the ‘sanctity’ of clinical information. The public may become desensitized to exposure of their information amongst several agencies… Perhaps there are blunt examples of this in politics as evinced this week (and many times previously)? I’ve blogged about the topic in various ways –

    A worry is (?) that this may happen when clinical ‘detail’ increases in value and significance in manifold respects:

    * genetics – insurance
    * (personalised) advertising
    * identity theft

  6. Don Bird:
    The annals of neuroscience are full of fascinating facts which make the febrile lucubration of the Thought Experimenter nugatory. We learn that your body knows as much as you do and oftimes before you do. (cf. Libet’s decision experiments). We learn that consciousness goes down all the way into processes that are beyond the concomitant awareness that we associate with the Cartesian ego. Damasio in The feeling of what happens has details of a card game whose rules we divine without knowing that there are rules.

    But what does all this mean? The philosophers snatch like fractious children at the last few biscuits. If you thought epiphenomenalism or dualism was dead some cunning wretch will devise a new and improved model. Can panpsychism and panexperientialism be coming back? The great knuckled hand of the Absolute Idealist strokes his chest rug muttering, what.. now you need me.

  7. Scrub last comment, mistaken paste, should be in Hippocampus post.

  8. As I’m here:
    Sometimes sharing is not caring. Can people respect the rights that are enshrined in the constitution of themselves as persons? Yes. Can those rights be abrogated, derogated or surrogated when my people talk to your people or my publicity person disseminates and you can take that image as far as you like? No. Does Mrs.Brown really do her own tweets? Yes Virginia.

    From the informationally incontinent protect us. Amen.

  9. I think your intuition is correct, but the reasoning seems forced.

    Surely this is an indication that our language for discussing these issues is impoverished. Perhaps we need to talk about a person’s responsibilities, as well as their rights …

  10. I suggest that a right is not the same as an obligation, and what you raise is at the intersection of the definition of the individual and the community.

    First, rights and obligations. A person’s right to life does not oblige that person to live, should that person choose not to live (as per the concept of self-euthanasia). Nor should a person’s choice not to vote reduce their right to vote. As to Locke, if one can choose to be a slave in one circumstance, then why not have that choice in other circumstances?

    So, the discussion appears to be: how do the rights of the community interplay with the rights of the individual?

    Using the case of Twitter as a community, the individual chooses to tweet, knowingly divulging information, even if (and perhaps because) the context devolves into an orgy of voyeurism and narcissism.

    If on the the other hand the community you have chosen is your neighborhood park, the action of the screaming couple, airing their private matters, has at least somewhat diminished your right to enjoy your choice. You could choose to go to another park, but the screaming couple has caused some harm to you.

    As other commentators suggest, the concept of responsibility is necessary in this discussion. At some point, you can’t opt out of every community, because at some point your actions (and the actions of the screaming couple) impact others. Therefore, responsibility arises, and that is due to the social contract forming the basis for the community.

    Perhaps the language for discussing this is the language of economics: How do I gain from any given situation, now and in the future?

  11. Locke regards the choice of slavery in that one circumstance to be a unique case. He argues that slavery can only be imposed when the person deserves to be punished by death. As Locke sees it, the person can chose to end his slavery by choosing to take the death that was his just punishment.

    Obviously, his argument rests on numerous assumptions that can be challenged.

    I do like the idea of responsibility, but elected to just focus on rights in this context. My main reason was curiosity about the right to privacy.

  12. I like what MDLEE had to say about rights vs. obligations. There seems to be a difference between choosing to not keep certain things private and violating my own right to privacy…I can tell people the contents of my top dresser drawer, but I don’t want anyone snooping through it.

    And as far as the person on the phone or altercation between hubby and cheating wife – seems like the social contract would go both ways here. I can’t really get behind getting frustrated with someone else’s passionate conversation…I’d feel like a jerk for thinking they were jerks.

    And how would we establish what a person had a right to say and at what volume in a very public place? Can I yell “Hey! Asshole!” to a guy that kicked sand in my face on the beach? Or just “Hey!” Or at just a certain volume and no higher? Calling TMI “harm” doesn’t seem legit…and I’m certainly willing to put up with a little discomfort if it means we don’t have to call the police anytime someone shares too much in a public place.

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