says with privacy, it's no harm no foul
Sept. 11, expectations about information privacy have changed and
Americans seem willing to tolerate a greater degree of surveillance.
This doesn't surprise California State University, Sacramento philosophy
professor Randy Mayes.
"A person's rights aren't being fundamentally violated by being
watched," he says. "Sometimes people misinterpret me as
saying I think privacy isn't important. I just use 'privacy' differently."
Mayes presented his findings at a recent conference on "Terror
Mayes says the concept of the "right to privacy" began
with an 1890 Harvard Law Review piece that defined it as the right
to be left alone. Eventually, that expanded to the right not to
be bothered in private affairs. And as technology progressed, creating
the ability to observe without bothering, it began to be considered
a violation of privacy if a person was just looking. That goes too
far, says Mayes.
"There's a great deal of good in observation," he says.
"If you think about it, in a liberal culture, knowledge is
one of the things you value in and of itself. We should be careful
about making exceptions to the idea that knowledge is an intrinsic
"The reason you don't like people knowing about you is because
you're afraid of what they might think or do. It needs to be stipulated
when it doesn't harm, you can't say your privacy has been violated."
The harm comes when information gathering violates a person's rationality,
the privacy of one's own mind. Mayes defines privacy as the right
to exercise practical rationality without interference. "Privacy
is a state of mind. It's the freedom to keep people out of your
consciousness," he says.
"If someone is spying or eavesdropping on you, and you aren't
aware of it, that's very different. If I'm in a public space reading
a book and someone is looking over my shoulder, if I don't know
they're doing it, it doesn't really hurt. But when you become aware
of it, you can find it hard to concentrate, your mind is derailed,"
he says. "Even a peeping Tom hasn't hurt anybody, except himself
in a moral sense, until he's discovered. Then he has intruded into
the personal space of the person he's watching. The right to privacy
doesn't prevent people from looking. It requires them to be discrete."
Mayes also makes a distinction between privacy and the right to
privacy. "The right to privacy doesn't mean you get to keep
everything private," he says. "It's like liberty-people
have a right to it, but they still can't do anything they want.
They're not allowed to steal. They're not allowed to drive on the
wrong side of the street. The government can violate liberties,
but not the right to liberty."
In the same way, a person can violate another person's privacy,
but not their right to privacy.
It doesn't violate privacy to collect information. The real concern
is that the information will be used to harm other rights. He cites
the example of a woman who was the subject of an unflattering videotape
taken while she was in the stands at the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
David Letterman showed the video on his television program several
times, poking fun at her. She attempted to sue his production company
for violating her privacy.
"We're subject to standards as a society," he says. "At
a public event a normal person would expect to have their picture
taken but she would not expect to be humiliated. The picture doesn't
violate her privacy, the public humiliation does."
Before Sept. 11, people were concerned about being tracked while
visiting a website or about grocery stores collecting marketing
information through shopping cards. "That's not necessarily
bad," he says. "It's not that I like these things, but
I don't think they violate my right to privacy.
"You need to think about the consequences. If you vilify information
gathering under right to privacy you make right to privacy too broad.
What is important, what you really have a right to, is a space to
think, to use practical rationality."
Media assistance is available by contacting the CSUS public affairs
office at (916) 278-6156.