The Right To Privacy: Win One, Lose One?

Do American citizens possess a legal right to privacy? If they do, then is it guaranteed in the United States Constitution? And if it is, then is it an unalienable human right?

These questions are meaningful because contemporary advances in technology have caused civil advocates to raise concerns about illegal invasions of personal privacy. But these advocates often fail to clarify whether such alleged invasions are administratively illegal, constitutionally illegal, or unalienably illegal.

There are no generally accepted definitions that distinguish between these three levels of illegality. Nevertheless, the differences are conceptually significant. A law that requires the printing of home addresses on driver’s licenses, for instance, may represent a legal breach of personal privacy, but it is hardly a constitutional concern.

On the other hand, a law that prohibits same sex marriage is undoubtedly one that addresses the constitutional rights of American citizens. And a law that legalizes euthanasia or abortion directly addresses the “right to life” that was labeled an “unalienable right” in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

Concerns about privacy rights were raised anew last week, in light of a pair of announcements about: (a) hardware that is designed to protect physical security, and (b) software that is designed to share personal information. From the perspective of privacy advocates, the two announcements could have been scored in a “win one, lose one” manner.

Win One For Airline Passengers

The “win” for privacy advocates involved the full body security scanners that are manufactured by Rapiscan Systems. Two hundred and fifty machines had been installed at airport security areas throughout the United States; over half of these machines currently remain in operation.

The scanners are controversial because they use x-ray technology to “see” through clothing and transmit anatomically accurate images of nude human bodies to security agents. The agents, who are positioned in remote enclosed rooms in the airports, are trained to search for visual evidence of concealed weaponry.

Last week, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that it will remove the scanners from operation because of concerns about violating the personal privacy of airline passengers. Nevertheless, the TSA vowed to continue utilizing alternative scanners that display less graphically vivid images.

The TSA did not cite a legal definition of privacy when it announced its decision. Although some liken the Rapiscan methodology to a virtual strip search, others support what has been characterized by the TSA as a safe and necessary strategy for promoting airline safety.

Lose One For Social Media Users

The “loss” for privacy advocates involved the announcement of a new search feature by Facebook. Its Graph Search function is designed to enable web-based searches on individual users by referring to their personal and social postings.

Facebook, of course, does possess the legal right to utilize all posted information in accordance with its terms and conditions of use. A more controversial issue, though, is whether the social media giant possesses the legal right to assume that all of its users actually read and understood those terms and conditions before opening accounts and posting personal and social content.

Facebook executives would undoubtedly argue that the discontinuation of Graph Search would not represent a victory for privacy advocates; instead, it would impose a loss on advocates of free communication in general and supporters of an open internet in particular. Likewise, Rapiscan executives undoubtedly perceive the discontinuation of its full body scanners as a loss for proponents of transportation security.

Coming Next: Location Tracking

The next great privacy controversy over technology applications may involve the continued development of location tracking systems. Ever since President Bill Clinton authorized the use of the satellite based Global Positioning System for commercial applications, companies from Google to foursquare have developed web based applications to exploit its capabilities.

To be sure, applications such as Mapquest driving directions and Garmin navigation systems have made travel experiences far more safe and efficient for millions of users. But the proverbial “dark side” of location tracking systems was exposed by the web site PleaseRobMe.com, a tongue-in-cheek rogue service for burglars that actually broadcast updates when social media users were traveling away from home.

In the Steven Spielberg film adaption of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, Tom Cruise walked through a shopping mall and was besieged by highly personalized advertisements that detected his personal identify and greeted him by name. The film did not clarify whether he possessed the right to “opt out” of such advertising, or whether he had previously “opted in” for it.

If the past week’s events regarding Rapiscan and Facebook are any indication of the future, such issues will likely be debated for quite some time to come. In the meantime, though, we’ll be able to feel a bit less prudish when we check in at the airport, while possibly feeling compelled to be a bit more cautious when we post our location status updates online.