What Value Has ‘Privacy’ Today?

The UNESCO Courier considers our right to privacy to be ‘the bedrock of civil rights.’

Photo by / nautilus64

Many believe that all human rights are tied up in man’s basic right to privacy.

On September 11, 2001, millions changed their view, their belief, concerning privacy. A former U.S. trade commissioner was quoted in BusinessWeek as having said at that time, “Terrorists swim in a society in which their privacy is protected. If some invasions of privacy are necessary to bring them out into the open, most people are going to say O.K., go ahead.” Present day surveys show that 86% of Americans are in favor of wider use of facial-recognition systems; 81% are in favor of closer monitoring of banking and credit-card transactions and 68% support a national ID card. These cards would include owners’ fingerprints and retinal scan and would allow access to any criminal history and financial records in their name.

Governments are investing millions of dollars in up to date surveillance equipment. Worldwide, millions of employees have their internet and e-mail use monitored while working. For some, constantly being watched is expected. However, for millions of others, the amount of surveillance they are subject to each day is unknown. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand are part of a network of satellite receiver stations, known as ECHELON. This system allows these countries to intercept and inspect satellite-relayed telephone, fax, internet, and e-mail messages. Not so long ago, the FBI introduced a new technology to be used by law-enforcement agencies, called Carnivore. This system is being used today, to monitor e-mails, instant messages and digital phone calls. In Britain, according to the BBC, law enforcement agencies are allowed to secretly watch thousands of people using phones, fax machines and the internet. So far, few complaints have been made concerning the watchful eyes of government.

Photo by / Timsu

“The right of privacy is not easily understood because it cannot be described with precision.” I agree with The Guide To American Law. After a law review article written in 1890, privacy was defined as ” the right to be let alone.” This definition was then supplanted by a definition given by Masanari Sakamoto, a professor at the University of Hiroshima. He viewed privacy as a positive concept that includes both the separation from others and the involvement with them. His definition is in keeping with The Encyclopedia Americana which holds the view that “individuals, groups, or institutions be allowed to determine for themselves when, how and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.” That means that what is thought to be a matter of privacy to one person is not necessarily a matter of privacy to someone else.

For example, there is no word for privacy in the Japanese language. Nor does a word exist for privacy in the languages of Portugal or Korea. There are countries where people are taught to share everything with family and friends. In other words, it is expected that one give up any idea of privacy rather than protect it. In Denmark, being overly concerned about your neighbors’ affairs is frowned upon. Same is true in Britain, where people treasure privacy even from their children. A survey conducted by the Allensbacher Institute in Germany found that 62% of those polled viewed their own private happiness as the main purpose in life. A trend towards selfishness with emphasis on privacy has also taken place in Japan. Due to the rapid economic growth experienced by many, societal changes have included children growing up with their own rooms, a phenomenon considered to represent the greatest historical change in Japanese society. Next to it are the number of married couples in Japan who seek privacy in rented hotel rooms for their intimate times together.

Motivations behind a desire for more or less privacy differ among teenagers as well. Usually, the want is for more control over their time and their possessions. Some want freedom from nosy siblings or busy bodies passing as friends or schoolmates. There are those who wish their parents were not so inquisitive. As adolescents grow into adults, the desire or demand for privacy is their way of putting emotional distance between themselves and other family members. One social scientist, Albert Mehrabian , says, “too little privacy is basically a stressful thing. You get sick more often, you are accident prone, you become irritable, you no longer get along with people and you can become clinically depressed.”

Photo by / Ilcsab

Those of us who read magazines are well aware that some of them thrive on invading certain people’s privacy; exposing the intimate details of their life for public display. Such ones are hailed by the editorial staff as courageous. Then there are the hackers. A number of U.S. agencies have anywhere from 18-20 files on the average American open to legitimate viewing. Those same files are available to a professional hacker. It is no joke when your literate friend informs you that author George Orwell got it right in his book titled 1984.

How do you view your privacy? Do you feel like you are watched as you go about your daily routine? Does the government know too much about you? Are your neighbors nosy? When it comes to the intimate details of your life do you feel safe? I do.

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