Privacy is a fundamental human right

Privacy is a fundamental human right recognised by the UN and other international and regional treaties. In 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed this right to privacy in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks." [ [1] ]

According to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louise Brandeis, Privacy is “the right to be let alone" [ [2] ]. Concerns about privacy date back to the early days of Peeping Toms, nosy neighbours, letter thieves and village gossips. More recently, due to heightened security concerns in most European countries, her citizens have to contend with the interference of the state into their personal lives.

Majority of Government’s around the world have upheld the rights individuals have to privacy by defining statues and laws that establish boundaries concerning how much information can or should be collected about an individual legally, and the manner in which such information is used.

In the United Kingdom, laws to protect the privacy of her citizens date back to the 1361 Justices of the Peace Act that provided for the arrest of “peeping toms" and “eavesdroppers"[ [3] ], In more modern times, the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into English Law.

What is Privacy?

The definition of Privacy is one subject that has been the object of debate for a very long time. Various papers have attempted to come up with their own definition of privacy; this difficulty in arriving at a universally accepted definition has oft been sighted as the reason why the law does not adequately address the issue of privacy.

Though a universally accepted definition is difficult to come by, innately, within everyone of us, we know what privacy is and are aware when it is been infringed upon.

The Oxford dictionary defines privacy as a “state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people" [ [4] ].The Calcutt committee in its first report on privacy defined privacy as ‘The right of the individual to be protected against intrusion into his personal life or affairs, or those of his family, by direct physical means or by publication of information’ [ [5] ].

Legislation that Protects Privacy in the UK

The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) came into force in October 2000. The act gives effect to rights and freedom of citizens and was developed using the European Convention on Human Rights as a framework. Article 8 of the HRA, Right to Respect for Private and Family Life states that:

Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home, and his correspondence.

There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right, except such as in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety, or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. [ [6] ]

Technology & Privacy

Without a doubt, advancements in technology and the development of sophisticated equipments pose the biggest threat to individual privacy. So sophisticated are these techniques and devices that, untrained individuals have little awareness that their civil liberties are being infringed upon. Some Government’s argue that this is necessary as ‘only the guilty have something to hide’; however this is not always the case. A right to expect privacy should be one of the cornerstones of a civilized society.

The governments initiative to reduce crime by using video surveillance has further led to our privacy been infringed upon, in a statement by former home secretary David Davies, “there is one CCTV camera for every fourteen citizens" [ [7] ]. On the average, each person is caught on camera three hundred times as they walk around town and city centres, drive along motorways and shop in their local supermarket. [ [8] ]

This excessive surveillance has resulted in the UK been ranked by Privacy international as the worst EU country and rated as a country that demonstrates “endemic surveillance". [ [9] ]

People have come to accept the presence of CCTV cameras and perhaps on a subconscious level are reassured by their presence in public places.

The use of CCTV cameras as a crime prevention mechanism dates as far back as 1975 when CCTV cameras were installed in Stockwell, Clapham North, Clapham Common, and Brixton underground stations. They were installed to act as deterrents to criminals and as a means of protecting staff and passengers using underground services [ [10] ].

Footage from CCTV cameras has assisted law enforcement agents in demystifying and providing key evidence for solving crime cases. In 1993, footage from a CCTV camera in a shopping centre in Bootle, Merseyside was used in identifying the murderers of James Bulger [ [11] ].

Proper use of CCTV is guided by the Data Protection Act 1998. [ [12] ] In 1995, CCTV cameras filmed Thomas Peck walking down Bentwood High Street, Essex with a knife in his hands. This was a case of attempted suicide; footage from the CCTV film was later aired on television. He was awarded 29, 875 Euros for unauthorised airing of CCTV footage containing him [ [13] ].

Our increased dependence on the dividends of sophisticated technology has meant in some cases a trade off on privacy, the more transactions we make online, the more we unknowingly give out bits and pieces of information that can identify us personally otherwise known as PIN Personal Identifiable Information.

A publication by Irene Pollach titled what’s wrong with online privacy policies? Identifies the reason why consumers would not make transactions online as been concerns that their data would be misused in one way or another. [ [14] ]

The government with the introduction of the Data Protection Act (DPA) 1998 set out minimum standards of how information gathered about us may be held and used. Government bodies hold information about us which we hope would be used sensibly.

For example the Police National DNA Database that contains records of over a million people, though these records have been obtained in some cases by controversial means, we hope these records do not one day become an object of abuse on our privacy as was the case a while ago when the media brought to the attention of the public the case of Det. Sgt. Alan Walker who between February 2006 and November 2007 used the police database system 49 times to check on the assets and whereabouts of a 52 year old borrower [ [15] ].

As part of her continued effort in the fight against crime, in 2000 the government introduced the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000. The act provides specific organisations approved by parliament the authority to intercept communications of suspected criminals using covert human intelligence sources. [ [16] ]

With increase in terrorism and paedophilia, this development is a welcome one as it allows government bodies intercept communications of suspected criminals in the interest of national security.

However, concerns as to whether the act would be applied solely for the purpose it was introduced for has lead civil rights and privacy campaigners to refer to the act as the ‘snoopers’ charter’ [ [17] ]. Using the act in 2008, a family in Dorset were put under surveillance by the council to find out if they were living in a school catchment area [ [18] ].

This was clearly a breach of the family’s privacy and raises concerns as to whether we are indeed free from the ‘big brother’ constantly watching us. It has become common place to see surveillance cameras on buses and underground stations so when in 2003, the government introduced a new system to assist commuters track their journey [ [19] ] all the various ways by which we could be monitored comes to mind.

Finally, the government’s plan to implement an Electronic Patient Record (EPR) system has generated a lot of interest from civil and privacy organisations. The scheme has great potentials to improve the quality of healthcare audit and research,

However, the slack manner in which patients records have been handled in the past [ [20] ], has given rise to serious concerns that increasing access to data through EPR systems might also bring new risks to privacy and security of health records. [ [21] ]


The fact that somebody somewhere is capable of pulling out records about us at every whim is a situation that fills all of us with dread, because we as human beings like to express our civil liberties.

Nevertheless, the knowledge that terrorist activities are been curtailed though the effective use of communication interception under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the use of CCTV footage is playing a key role in solving crime cases and the possibility of improved health care through the proposed EPR system. Makes it okay to say, you have no privacy, get over it. Considering the benefits far out way the cost we, so to speak place on privacy within this context.

In conclusion, this essay has shown that privacy breaches should only be permitted within the framework of the law.