Home > American history, liberty, police and crime, political science, social control, state power, U.S. constitution > Privacy and Government Surveillance in the Twenty-First Century

Privacy and Government Surveillance in the Twenty-First Century

January 13th, 2011

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The complex question of how society should strike a balance between an individual’s need for privacy and the government’s use of surveillance to protect its citizens from harm is best explained by example. In 1986 in Minneola, Florida, fourteen-year-old Glenn Williams died from what appeared to be a drug overdose. Suspecting foul play, the police chief had officers take photographs and video of the autopsy. One of the officers took the video home and showed it to other officers and friends. The Orlando Sentinel then published an article describing the viewing as a party where the audience joked and laughed (Mills 252).

No one disputes the necessity of photographs and video in the apprehension and conviction of criminals, but the case of Williams v. City of Minneola highlights the potential for abuse by members of a government agency in the use of surveillance. Although the family was ultimately denied any recompense, the court determined that “…reckless infliction of emotional distress can lie for outrageous conduct involving pictures of a dead body. ” (Mills 253). Mills points out the importance of this case because it grants a right to privacy for family members and allows them to bring a claim for reckless acts.

In our technological, modern era, the idea of privacy is so broad that to have a meaningful discussion of it, it first should be defined. Scolio, in his book Transforming Privacy: A Transpersonal Philosophy of Rights, divides privacy into four categories: physical, decisional, informational, and formational. Physical privacy indicates that one has control over one’s home as well as one’s body. Decisional privacy relates to personal control over one’s choices, and with the modern development of this category came the phrase “the right to privacy” which first appeared in the Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 (“Privacy, right of”). Informational privacy concerns the control of information about a person, including information kept in computer databases. Finally, formational privacy refers to the right of the mind “to be left alone” from the onslaught of media, advertising and mass culture. (Scolio 2. The issue of privacy and government surveillance needs only concern itself with the physical and informational categories.

The history of privacy in America goes back to colonial times and the social conditions which led the authors of the Bill of Rights to include the Fourth Amendment. It reads “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. ” (Taslitz, 6. The searches of homes and seizures of papers and effects of persons were authorized primarily by the English authorities under laws such as The Stamp Act of 1765, which “levied a tax…on nearly every form of paper used in the colonies. ” (Taslitz 24). Mobs of American colonists responded to the passage of the act with riots which eventually brought about a repeal. Taslitz suggests that while the riots were aimed at the tax itself, a large part of the anger was due to the history of the English authorities who would search people’s homes for smuggled goods, on which, of course, no tax had been paid.

Where the Fourth Amendment was concerned with the physical privacy of the home and personal effects of a person, the notion of informational privacy came about as a result of the technological advances which began in the Industrial Revolution and culminated in the invention of the computer.

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