Privacy as secrecy and privacy as autonomy

"Visible downgrading" by Alex Wellerstein. CC BY 2.0 license.

The concept of “privacy”–as in “the right to privacy“–can be understood in a number of ways. This multitude of potential meanings and uses is partly why the concept is controversial, confusing, and perhaps even contradictory. Previously I have discussed the difference in perceptions of privacy in the 19th century, where the legal focus seemed to be more on “confidentiality” than what we have come to understand as “privacy” today. That is, the 19th century concern was with maintaining trust relationships between people rather than with protecting either secrecy or autonomy (although that is not to say that these were not valued).


This changed with the 1890 publication of the Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis law review article called “The Right to Privacy.” In this article, Warren and Brandeis are actually concerned with something more akin to autonomy than secrecy: “from Greek autonomia, from autonomos  ‘having its own laws,’ from autos ‘self’ + nomos ‘law’” (from Apple’s dictionary app).  That is, allowing people to control their own self-identity, rather than allowing it to be exploited by (for example) yellow journalists. Secrecy, on the other hand, is about keeping something away from the knowledge of others. The concepts are related, but distinct and different, and require different legal approaches.

"Paparazzi" by Clément Seifert. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licensed.

The Warren and Brandeis article advocated for the protection of a person’s “inviolate personality” and the “fundamental right to be let alone.” They were not concerned with illegal government searches of private residences–or even the trespasses of journalists in private land–but rather with the publication and dissemination of information that, they believed, most properly belonged to a person. In other words, their approach was akin to a broad notion of copyright or “right of publicity,” because it proposed allowing people to control the publication of their own likeness (photos of themselves, for example). Such control was based on a kind of “moral right,” in a sense, to own one’s own self, or to be “autonomous.” The implications of a right to control the publication of information about one’s self has the potential to conflict with the First Amendment rights of others in a way that a right to privacy as secrecy might not.

In 1928, now a Supreme Court justice, Brandeis wrote in dissent in Olmstead v. U.S. that the right to privacy was the “right to be left alone–the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by a free people.” Cornell’s Legal Information Institute explains that the right to privacy has thus “developed into a liberty of personal autonomy protected by the 14th amendment.” The focus on a “right to privacy” as “a liberty of personal autonomy” is why the Fourteenth Amendment (due process and equal protection), and not the Fourth Amendment (search and seizure), is often so important today when discussing privacy, and is the constitutional underpinning for key decisions like Roe v. Wade.


"Completely Tapped" by Byung Kyu Park. CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

A right to secrecy is most closely aligned with the Fourth Amendment (search and seizure) and with trespass, and less with the “penumbra” of due process or equal protection. A right to keep things secret is also about “inviolability” in some sense. Thus, in Olmstead, Brandeis could argue that a wiretap could intrude on a “right to privacy”–the “right to be let alone”–as part of a violation of the Fourth Amendment, even though no publication or dissemination had necessarily occurred. A right to autonomy, to protect one’s self, might well require a right to secrecy in a case involving wiretaps, but it has less value in protecting abortion rights, for example, where the real question is one of self-determination, not secrecy.

Approaching a right to secrecy legally, one might prosecute an overzealous journalist not for the publication of embarrassing information–and certainly not for photos taken in public places–but for a trespass involved in obtaining private letters. In some cases, the First Amendment might still be implicated (think of the Pentagon Papers), but the restraint on speech is much weaker when what is being restricted is not directly the publication of materials, but rather the manner in which they were obtained.

In this sense, then, data privacy laws–which Eugene Volokh, for example, has explained are in many ways in conflict with the First Amendment–might be more readily disentangled from that constitutional problem if they are realigned with traditional laws against trespass. The law, then, would not be focused on preventing publication (although that might be an issue still, and might still have First Amendment implications), but rather on punishing transgressions or trespasses.


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