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The Question of Privacy


Judith Cardell, Engineering
Alice Hearst, Government

Privacy is often referred to as a fundamental right. We see it as an inviolate characteristic of democracy, protected by the courts and celebrated as a core principle of American citizenship. As a constitutional concept, privacy means the protection of bodily integrity, private thoughts and actions, and the sanctity of intimate and familial relations. The right to privacy sets us apart from other societies where the boundaries between public and private are blurred.

In practice, however, the right to privacy is ambiguous and complex. Privacy can mean different things depending upon circumstance and context. One critical area in which privacy has emerged as complicated, for example, is in the realm of technology: In benefiting from the pleasures of social networking and the convenience of online shopping, we constantly compromise our right to privacy. Technology also impacts our leisure. Surveillance cameras, when installed throughout major cities, both protect and intrude. The health professions extol the benefits of personal tracking devices for patients while profoundly compromising their privacy. Government enacts new laws and regulations designed for counterterrorism, yet every one of these laws compromises our personal privacy—allowing for endless data gathering and the storing of private information about each one of us.

Historically, privacy was defined differently. In most 19th-century homes, for example, physical privacy was less available.  In correspondence—in the sealed, personal letter—it was more protected. Today, privacy as a constitutional concept is invoked to protect intimate and familial relations. Here again, though, the concept is fraught: We value the private right to raise our children as we see fit. Yet schools and government institutions place limits on what we teach our children and when they are exposed to certain ideas; similarly, we assume a private control over our own bodies, and yet we constantly debate that autonomy in matters of contraception and abortion. Privacy laws can create barriers to critical action, as when adult children are prevented from accessing the records of a sick parent.

This semester-long project will examine the controversial nature of privacy, our right to it and our ability to project it. We hope to build a conversation across disciplines about the pros and cons, the limits and definitions of privacy in the modern world. Should the historical and legal framework for privacy be changed in the face of technological transformations? What are the benefits and liabilities of maintaining corporate, governmental, and scientific databases of personal information? Are there particular kinds of human connections that require privacy, connections that would cease to exist in some future “open-source” world? How do changing notions of privacy impact the arts and the way we draw inspiration from the private mind? How have issues of privacy served as the basis for literary work?

The objective of the project will be to end the semester with a richer understanding of how we define our right to privacy and what it means to protect this right.

The call for faculty fellowships in the Privacy project will be sent in the fall of 2013.


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