The Importance of Privacy — Both Psychological and Legal

There is a right “to be let alone,” but that’s not always the best course.

Posted Jul 20, 2020

The need for privacy continues to progress as we become more technologically advanced where personal images and information can be readily available to others, sometimes for an indefinite period. Attempts to control the disclosure of such private material has led to a more concerted focus on the psychological importance of privacy as well as the development of more sophisticated security measures.

Psychological Needs

An important facet of privacy is its psychological underpinnings. Some have conceptualized privacy as both a trait characteristic of an individual and as a state that can vary depending on the situation. Moreover, the amount of disclosure one chooses to engage in is controlled either internally or externally (Taylor, Ferguson, and Ellen, 2015). In most situations, however, it is the individual who chooses to reveal information about oneself to others or not. Not surprisingly, concealment is often applied to negative personal information.

Self-concealment can be maladaptive: Although privacy can fulfill a psychological need for protection from others, it can also conflict with the need for connection with others. The desire for privacy can be a double-edged sword. A person can feel stressed by lacking human connections that encourage engagement with and being known by others. However, disclosure also carries the risk of feeling vulnerable and exposed.

Generally, research has found that self-concealment can have negative physical and psychological effects, including anxiety and depression. Uysal, Lin, and Knee (2010) discuss how deliberately refraining from expressing one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can take great effort, and over time, can become a physiological stressor on the body.

Moreover, suppressing what one really thinks, feels, or wants to do is not being one’s true self. In doing so, individuals have no opportunity to demonstrate their competence, weaknesses, and feelings of genuine connection. Additionally, this is a type of distancing that does not foster meaningful relationships and a sense of who one is in relation to the perspective of others; thus, possibly leading to a uni-dimensional image of oneself. Consequently, a person’s sense of self-worth, identity, trust, and social support can be greatly impacted.

Privacy promotes self-reflection: On the other hand, the importance of having time to self-reflect and process one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior without being subjected to the views and opinions of others is critical. We need to develop our own set of values and morals as well as a sense of our own identity rather than rely predominantly on the views of others.

Categories of Privacy: Koops, Newell, and Ivan (2017) discuss types of privacy where Alan F. Westin (Westin, 1967), a noted scholar on privacy issues, defined privacy in terms of levels of involvement with others; viz., solitude, intimacy, anonymity, and reserve.

Simply put, solitude is “separating from others,” and intimacy refers to seclusion with a small group to achieve close contact with loved ones, friends, and co-workers. Anonymity can be demonstrated in two ways: either appearing in public where one can be observed by others but not recognized and thereby not being held to act in a socially expected way; or anonymity can be doing something publicly but with no way of being identified (e.g., an article in the newspaper by an “anonymous” author). Reserve refers to protecting oneself from unwanted intrusions by limiting personal information in terms of how much and what one withholds or discloses.

Westin’s conceptualization of privacy can be viewed not only in relation to how much information is communicated to others (social disclosure), but also in terms of levels of involvement with others (social withdrawal).  

Legal rights to privacy

When we think about the legal rights that individuals in the United States have (such as, the right to exercise free speech, to practice one’s religion, to congregate with others in a peaceful manner, and to have a fair trial), the right to privacy may be one that does not get a lot of “airplay.” It is not stated specifically in the U.S. Constitution; however, it is a central factor in some of the Amendments and has been recognized by courts (most importantly, the U.S. Supreme Court) as a right that must be protected.

Right to “be let alone:” In their highly influential law review article, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis (1890) wrote about the legal right to privacy, or what Judge Thomas Cooley called the right “to be let alone” (1888).

Warren and Brandeis wrote, "The principle which protects personal writings and any other productions of the intellect or of the emotions, is the right to privacy, and the law has no new principle to formulate when it extends this protection to the personal appearance, sayings, acts, and to personal relation, domestic or otherwise" (p. 213).

Warren and Brandeis also recognized the “right to publicity.” The distinction between the two is the personal information’s relevance to public service. That is, if the individual’s private life, behavior, or relations have no connection to their “fitness for a public office,” then such information should remain protected. It can be said further that the right to publicity extends to those who may pose a physical threat to others, as reflected by sex offender registries. Thus, the right to privacy has important protection implications for both the individual and the community.

Areas of Legal Privacy: In legal matters, the importance of privacy has been applied in the following issues (Koops, Newell, and Ivan, 2017):

  • Privacy of Places and Property
  • Privacy of Relations, including business relations and family relations (such as reproductive and sexual behavior), protection of communications and documents   
  • Privacy of the Person (Body, Mind, and Identity); such as, not being touched or harmed, the right against self-incrimination, and the right to make personal decisions 
  • Privacy of Personal Data

Both interpersonal and legal matters acknowledge the need for privacy. Yet, this need is not all-encompassing, nor should it be. As the world becomes a smaller and more intimate place with the advent of technological development and worldwide communication and commerce, the importance of the “right to be let alone” as well as the right “to be known by others” remains an evolving balancing act.

References

Cooley, T. M. (1888). A treatise on the law of torts, or the wrongs which arise independent of contract. (2ed.). Chicago: Callaghan & Co.

Koops, B., Newell, B. C., Ivan, T. T. (2017). A typology of privacy. University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, 38, 483.

Taylor, J. F., Ferguson, J., & Ellen, P. S. (2015). From trait to state: Understanding privacy concerns. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 32/2, 99 –112. doi.org/10.1108/JCM-07-2014-1078

Uysal, A., Lin, H. L., & Knee, C. R. (2010). The role of need satisfaction in self-concealment and well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(2), 187–99. DOI: 10.1177/0146167209354518

Warren, S. D., & Brandeis, L. D. (1890). The right to privacy. Harvard Law Review, 4, 193.

Westin, A. F. (1967). Privacy and Freedom. New York: Atheneum.