The right to be let alone

The Supreme Court case Olmstead v. United States from 1928 is very famous for the dissenting opinion written by Justice Louis Brandeis.

However, it easy to misquote Brandeis by saying he wrote “the right to be left alone-the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” For example, sometimes the mistake is made in library science documents.

However, the actual quote is “the right to be let alone….” not “left alone.” The difference is  substantial.

“Left alone” refers to things that directly affect a person. Generally, a violation of this definition would be known to the person whose privacy was violated. When the police come without a warrant looking for contraband, that would violate the principle of being left alone.

“Let alone” makes irrelevant whether there is the knowledge of the violation by the victim or whether they are directly affected. When the police use a Stingray to capture cell phone information, that is a violation of being let alone, but it isn’t a violation of being left alone.

Power Imbalances

In situations where privacy problems appear, there is often an imbalance of power. One of the parties in the interaction can make decisions without the consent of the other. Additionally, the other doesn’t have the ability to counteract these decisions. They may not have sufficient influence. They may not know about the decisions. They may be excluded from having the right to affect the decisions.

To identify what areas of privacy I want to study, I believe having a list of privacy actors could be helpful to weed out things that are important to me and I’m interested in. I’ll group the actors into categories.

There are other agents affecting privacy, but they do not involve a strong power imbalance. Those aren’t included in this list. Some of entities here that have their powers affected by legislation such as FERPA and HIPAA. This includes Medical providers, financial institutions, intermediaries and educational institutions and any government agency.

This table primarily concerns Solove’s Information Collection, Information Processing and Information Dissemination privacy problems. It doesn’t address the Invasion privacy problems.

Agents that collect data that has economic value to themselves or may sell it

  • Financial institutions such as banks, lenders, investment agencies and debt collectors. They collect detailed financial information.
  • Online merchants. Their privacy policies are difficult to influence.
  • Brick and Mortar Merchants. They can capture information about purchases and payment services such as credit cards. They also don’t need to document their policies.
  • Insurance companies. They want information that helps them decide insurability.

Agencies that work behind the scenes yet they impact privacy rights

  • Technology infrastructure providers. Both internet service providers and service provides like cable companies. They can decide privacy policies that the individual cannot refuse.
  • Technology manufacturers. Once something is manufactured, whether it is an automobile, smart phone, computer or internet of things object, users doesn’t have the ability to change the information it controls.
  • Data warehouses. The collect information and individuals have no control over what is there, how accurate it is or what it will be used for.

Also financial institutions and brick and mortar merchants can work behind the scenes.

Agencies with legal right to acquire some personal knowledge

  • Government agencies such as the license branch and IRS have more control over the information than the information source.
  • Law enforcement. They gather information for criminal prosecution. They can also request information that you are not obligated to give, but it is difficult to say no. For example, they may ask to see your smart phone.
  • The judicial branch of the government. Criminal cases and civil disputes can include private information.
  • Educational institutions may accumulate many forms information. This information may be available to future employers, loan and scholarship providers and funding sources for the school itself.
  • Medical providers. The collect detailed protected health information.

Also financial institutions.

Agents that make privacy decisions that in practice have no recourse. These entities are distinguished in that the individual is aware that they are interacting with the agents.

  • Technology service providers. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, multimedia sites like YouTube, Vimeo and Soundcloud, search engines like Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo, information sources like Wikipedia, Reddit and StackExchange. Some are near monopolies and thus have more power than an individual who needs to use their services.
  • Library service providers. Entities that control services used by the library such as the ILS and information resources such as databases and specialized services can set their own policies that the library or its patrons may not influence.

Also online merchants.

Agents that can affect privacy through surveillance

  • Employers. They can capture information about employee activities.
  • Intermediaries like the telephone network that have specific legal responsibilities but may also be used to gather information about transactions they assist.

Also law enforcement, government agencies, and the judicial branch of the government.

Data warehouse are not in this category because although they may enable surveillance, they are normally not the agents performing the surveillance

Agents that may find legal protection when they threaten privacy

  • Media outlets, publishers and online bloggers or similar publishers. They can disclose private materials without the individual’s consent or easy recourse.