Ask any teenager and they will tell you that privacy is an important and vital part of life. Reach for any unattended smart phone and you’ll probably be prompted to enter a password or verify with a fingerprint. Our culture loves privacy. Privacy is considered as necessary as food yet taken for granted by many like the air we breathe. Rarely do we even acknowledge our privacy until someone begins to infringe upon it. Then suddenly we’re willing to protest in the streets to fight for the privacy we believe should naturally belong to us. In the Emerging Media program at Loyola, my classmates and I spend a lot of time discussing topics such as privacy and how our culture’s dependence on digital communication plays a role in that. Furthermore, we tore down the illusions to discuss how private our lives actually are. One of the topics we’ve come to discuss is privacy online. Do we as Americans have the right to privacy or do we have to fight for it? In the Constitution, the Fourth Amendment clarifies what privacy we’re entitled to as American citizens. The Bill of Rights declares,
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The Fourth Amendment outlines where we stand when it comes to police invasion. If the police came to your house, you have the legal right to defend yourself against unlawful searching and refuse entrance. At the time this Amendment was ratified in 1791, law enforcement was simple and this type of privacy invasion was as relevant and as qualified as the American people needed it to be. Now, times are different. As we’ve evolved towards newer and more advanced methods of communication, people have found new ways to share or not to share their private information. Suddenly, there are new ways in which we can have our privacy taken away.
The relevance of the Constitution was a buzzing topic in 2013 when Edward Snowden revealed to everyone that the NSA had been secretly monitoring and collecting information on the average person’s Internet and telephone activity. During that time, people began to question their right to privacy and whether their Constitutional rights were being taken away. The privacy they had taken for granted, had been compromised. For the first time, Americans began to demand that their government reconsider the lengths taken for national security in relation to personal privacy. People began to question the already established definition of privacy in a newly digital and technologically advancing world.
Today we live in a culture that embraces the Internet. Communication has never been easier than it is today thanks to smart phones, tablets, and computers. As a result, people are sharing their lives with more people and with higher expectations. We have our various social media accounts: Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. These accounts give us the ability to tell a close friend about a recent concert experience or a complete stranger about our favorite places to brunch. We’ve embraced public socializing with open arms and an implied expectation that our information is shared to the extent that we allow for it to be shared. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Bernard Harcout, a professor at Columbia University, explains the “privatization of privacy” in this short video. Harcourt explores the concept that our privacy, or the lack thereof, has become a privatized business where people are the product. Facebook is just one of the social networking sites that tracks and stores its users’ information, likes, and browser history to sell for a profit to advertisers. We’ve reached a point in society where we not only have to worry about the government invading our privacy, but the networks and websites we’ve become addicted to as well. Even in our own homes, our personal Internet activities are being watched.
The question remains as to whether people should have to fight for their privacy online. While, the Bill of Rights doesn’t directly outline a right to privacy beyond the protection of unwarranted police searches, many people feel that privacy is as entitled to everyone as our very lives and freedoms are. Thomas Jefferson once described “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to be every American’s inalienable rights. These inalienable rights, similar to privacy, are well known and often defended. Life, liberty, and happiness are known to be social expectations and our basic human rights. Now that our right to privacy is being retracted through advertising sales, government surveillance, and criminal Internet hackers, are we entitled to privacy online? Or will we simply have to stand up against the large companies and demand our privacy back?
Perhaps it’s time for our laws to be revised to include distinctions and clarifications that reflect modern privacy. We need to accept the fact that the same laws and regulations that were established in the 1700s will never be as relevant as they were. Thomas Jefferson would have never guessed that people would be able to build digital profiles online to share their private and personal information. So how could he construct legal protection around it? As our culture begins to establish new standards for what it means to be a basic human in this country and guidelines for basic communication, we need to reconsider how we want to protect those basic rights. If digital communication and worldwide sharing is becoming the norm, our society needs laws and regulations that will compliment our new thirst for emerging media. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if the law provides us a right to online privacy. It only matters that we’re obligated to fight for it.
Alexiana A. Gaither, Graduate Student
Master of Arts in Emerging Media
Loyola University Maryland