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Is there a 'right to privacy' amendment?

The right to privacy embodies the belief that private information should be free from public scrutiny. It also means we have individual rights to be left alone. As technology evolves, more of our personal information is in the hands of third parties.

From e-commerce and email to smartphones and social media, tech advances will continue. This creates challenges for the legal system's ability to balance collective public interests against individual privacy interests. Legal scholars, state courts, and federal courts have influenced case law about the rights of people to enjoy privacy.

Over time, case rulings have affected how trials, appeals, and state supreme court justices interpret privacy claims. Judges can make rulings, either concurring or dissenting with earlier case law. These rulings have created a precedent known as common law, which is case-based rather than coded into statute (civil code).

The Constitution of the United States does not specifically protect your right to privacy. Since lawmakers don't legislate common law, it's not written into an “amendment." That means there is no explicit constitutional right to privacy. State and federal laws may even limit some individual privacy rights when there is a compelling government interest.

Yet, congress and state legislatures have worked alongside court decisions. They have enacted laws relating to privacy and civil rights. For example, although the right to be let alone isn't a Constitutional amendment, privacy acts exist in federal United States Code (U.S.C.) legislated by Congress. Protecting your rights starts with becoming familiar with federal statutes and state laws designed to secure private information.

Constitutional Privacy Rights

The U.S. Constitution does not mention the right to privacy. But courts can make favorable Constitutional interpretations of privacy. Case examples include:

In these cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has found that several Constitutional Amendments imply the following privacy rights:

  • The First Amendment provides the freedom to choose any religious belief and to keep that choice private.
  • The Third Amendment protects the zone of privacy in the home.
  • The Fourth Amendment protects the right of privacy against unreasonable searches. It also applies to unlawful seizures by law enforcement. This is where all that “probable cause" talk comes from.
  • The Fifth Amendment provides for the right against self-incrimination, which justifies the protection of private information.
  • The Ninth Amendment, interpreted as justifying a broad reading of the Bill of Rights, protects fundamental rights to privacy in ways not provided above.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from making laws that violate personal autonomy protections provided for in the first 13 Amendments. Before the Fourteenth Amendment, a state could make laws violating racial equality principles or freedom of speech.

As technology evolves, laws about what is acceptable in collecting and using private information are also changing. These rules include those pertinent to due process. In 2014, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided in Riley v. California that the warrantless search and seizure of digital content on cell phones during arrests was unconstitutional.

Personal Information Protection

The federal government protects personal information through a series of laws passed by Congress. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the primary agency enforcing privacy policy. The following pieces of legislation protect the right to privacy:

  • Fair Credit Reporting Act. This is one of the first federal privacy laws. It gives data protection for the personal financial information collected by credit agencies.
  • The Privacy Act of 1974. This prevents the federal government from making unauthorized disclosures of personal information under its control.
  • Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. This bars unauthorized use of protected computers without prior authorization. This includes smartphones or other devices connected to the internet.
  • Child Online Privacy Protection Act. COPPA imposes rules on online services directed at children under 13. It also applies to those who knowingly collect information from children under that age. These entities must post their privacy policies. They must also have an opt-out option and provide some parental controls.
  • Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. This Act requires financial institutions to explain their information-sharing practices to their customers. They must safeguard sensitive customer information.
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). HIPAA assures that a person's health information is properly protected. It sets use and disclosure standards.

Civil Law Privacy Protection

When there's an intrusion into your reasonable expectation of privacy, state laws help. They provide a right of enforcement through civil tort law. These are state laws and common laws that allow plaintiffs to win damages in civil suits. Although the specifics of these laws vary from state to state, the following four torts are based on the right to privacy:

(1) Intrusion of solitude:

This invasion of privacy interferes with one's right to solitude or seclusion. For example, it may come up when someone uses hidden cameras in your home or private office without your permission.

(2) Appropriation:

Appropriation occurs when a person's:

  • name
  • likeness
  • voice
  • or other personal characteristics

is used without permission for the benefit of another party. For example, say a company uses an actor to impersonate an NFL player for a television ad. If the player didn't allow the imitation, and the impersonation is obvious, an appropriation may have occurred.

(3) Public disclosure of private facts:

This tort protects against the unauthorized disclosure of details about a person's private life. It applies when those details are not generally known. Usually, disclosure to one or two people is not a public disclosure. This is true unless it is implied that the information could spread around.

(4) False light:

An invasion of privacy happens when publicized information is misleading or distorts the truth. Casting the subject of the material in a "false light," the material must be highly offensive to the average person. It must also be publicized:

  • despite the knowledge that the information is false or
  • with the publisher's reckless disregard for the falsity of the information.

Get a Review of Your Right to Privacy Claim

Enforcing your privacy rights is complicated. The law can vary based on where you live. Your personal information may be used in an unauthorized manner. Your right to be left alone was violated. Either way, an experienced attorney can help. A personal injury lawyer can help stop the unnecessary stress and anguish caused by privacy invasions.

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