Why privacy matters

Each year on January 28, organizations and governments from around the world come together to highlight Data Privacy Day and raise awareness of the immense challenges to personal privacy in our technologically driven society. Data Privacy Day was originally started by the Council of Europe in 2007 and then two years later, the United States Congress passed two resolutions recognizing January 28 as National Data Privacy Day in the U.S. as well. Increasingly throughout our society, there is a growing conversation and debate over personal privacy and its purpose in our society, as seen in the recent controversial moves by Apple and their push for more transparency on data collection by apps, as well as the continued push for a federal digital privacy law similar to that found in the European Union with the GDPR and states like California with the CCPA. But among the many challenges of digital privacy today, privacy can mean very different things across segments of our society and is often left undefined, misunderstood, and misapplied in our lives.

Moral autonomy

Law professor Daniel J. Solove states in Understanding Privacy, “Privacy is a concept in disarray. Nobody can articulate what it means.” He goes on to say, “privacy is a sweeping concept, encompassing freedom of thought, control over one’s body, solitude in one’s home, control over personal information, freedom from surveillance, protection of one’s reputation, and protection from searches and interrogations. Philosophers, legal theorists, and jurists have frequently lamented the great difficulty in reaching a satisfying conception of privacy” (1). As individuals across society and varying cultural contexts seek to define the concept of privacy, it often remains elusive because of the many ways we seek to ground privacy in the human experience, namely in the modern understanding of self and personal autonomy.

While it was not the beginning of privacy talk in America, a 1965 United States Supreme Court decision often is seen as a watershed moment for privacy and personal moral autonomy. In Griswold vs. Connecticut, Justice William Douglas—writing for the majority—famously applied this sense of personal moral autonomy to the controversies of the sexual revolution and found an “implied constitutional right to privacy”, which was used to justify the ability of married couples to buy and use contraceptives without government restriction. This understanding of an “implied constitutional right to privacy” has significantly influenced the modern-day debates over personal digital privacy and the role of government in moral decision making. But as opposed to a more historic and transcendent understanding of human rights, these individual rights are now seen as cut off completely from concepts of human dignity as seen in the Christian moral tradition based in the image of God. 

Human rights and privacy

Discussing the modern claims of individual rights, theologian John Kilner in his work Dignity and Destiny states, “It is important to keep rights closely tied to a clear sense of the dignity/sacredness of all people. Otherwise, rights claims can degenerate into mere assertion of self with no regard for others. Human rights are really God’s rights over humanity more than one person’s rights over another” (318). Human rights are the rights of all people as fellow human beings and advocating for human rights, such as privacy, intrinsically means standing for the dignity of other people and their rights rather than claiming our own. This corporate aspect of human dignity is articulated well by Kilner when he says, “just treatment of all requires taking account of personal and societal relationships in which people live, rather than merely viewing people as individuals” (320). Kilner’s words here directly contradict much of the common discussion around human rights and privacy today because of the current emphasis on moral and personal autonomy. If we merely speak of a right to privacy as a personal autonomy, we miss the fullness of the human dignity grounding of privacy.

A right to privacy is not derived from the moral autonomy of the individual but from the dignity of all people with the understanding that each life is precious and valued by God himself who created us as individuals in his image. One of the functions of privacy in this world is a way to care for the vulnerable among us and uphold their dignity as image bearers in a technologically rich society. As we see each day, data and information about our fellow image bearers can be and will be used, abused, and manipulated toward selfish ends because of the prevailing nature of sin in the world. Technology will be used to control and strip others of their dignity and one of the main ways this will be done in our digital society is through the misuse of data and information, thus the great need for a right to privacy grounded in a transcendent reality of human dignity rather than the pursuit of autonomy and individual freedom.

A Christian moral theory of privacy must be grounded in the Christian understanding of human dignity as opposed to theories grounded in persistent pursuit of complete moral autonomy and individualistic freedom. The Christian moral tradition shows that privacy is an instrumental and foundational right of all human beings, as individuals and communities, that serves the end of upholding dignity for all which is grounded in the Christian doctrine of the imago Dei. Armed with this understanding of privacy grounded in the imago Dei, Christians can be equipped to navigate the challenges of this technological society knowing that personal privacy is a God-given right, a right that speaks to the created reality of a life lived under God’s reign and rule where we can be known but also loved as fellow image bearers. Privacy then is to be upheld, respected, and honored in this world of increasing digital surveillance and data collection.

Originally posted on ERLC.com