Publication Date13 Mar 2007
AuthorRandy Kemp,Adam D. Moore
SubjectInformation & knowledge management,Library & information science
Randy Kemp
The Information School, Seattle, Washington, USA, and
Adam D. Moore
Department of Philosophy, University of Washington, Seattle,
Washington, USA
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to provide a survey piece on the concept of privacy and the
justification of privacy rights.
Design/methodology/approach – This article reviews each of the following areas: a brief history
of privacy; philosophical definitions of privacy along with specific critiques; legal conceptions of
privacy, including the history of privacy protections granted in constitutional and tort law; and
general critiques of privacy protections both moral and legal.
Findings – A primary goal of this article has been to provide an overview of the most important
philosophical and legal issues related to privacy. While privacy is difficult to define and has been
challenged on legal and moral grounds, it is a cultural universal and has played an important role in
the formation of Western liberal democracies.
Originality/value – The paper provides a general overviewof the issuesand debatesthat frame this
lively area of scholarly inquiry. By facilitating a wider engagement and input from numerous
communities and disciplines, it is the authors’ hope to advance scholarly debate in this important area.
Keywords Privacy, Humanrights
Paper type Conceptual paper
Privacy is a difficult notion to define. Part of the problem is that privacy has been used
to denote a wide number of interests including, personal information control,
reproductive autonomy, access to places and bodies, secrecy, and personal
development. Privacy interests also appear to be culturally relative – for example
opening a door without knocking might be considered a serious privacy violation in
one culture and yet permitted in another.
In any case, privacy, as noted in the brief historical sketch that follows, has always
been a commodity secured, more or less, on the basis of wealth , power, and privilege.
While recent advances in information technology have highlighted privacy interests
and concerns, privacy norms, and more generally public/private distinctions, have
been found in every culture systematically studied. Based on the human relations area
files at Yale University, Alan Westin (1968) has argued that there are aspects of
privacy found in every society – privacy is a cultural universal. This view is supported
by John Roberts and Thomas Gregor:
Societies stemming from quite different cultural traditions such as the Mehinacu and the Zuni
do not lack rules and barriers restricting the flow of information within the community, but
the management and the functions of privacy may be quite different (Roberts and Gregor,
1971, p. 200).
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 15 November 2005
Revised 18 October 2006
Accepted 1 November 2006
Library Hi Tech
Vol. 25 No. 1, 2007
pp. 58-78
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/07378830710735867
In the USA legal protections for privacy have been found to exist in the penumbras of
certain amendments to the Constitution and as part of common law. Local, State, and
Federal statutes also protect various dimensions of privacy. From these sources
privacy law has grown to protect the sanctity of the home and bedroom, a women’s
right to obtain an abortion, the right to secure publications with anonymity, and rights
against intrusions by government officials or other citizens.
In this article we will review each of these areas including:
.a brief history of privacy;
.philosophical definitions of privacy along with specific critiques;
.legal conceptions of privacy, including the history of privacy protections granted
in constitutional and tort law; and
.general critiques of privacy protections both moral and legal.
Our hope is to provide a general overview of the issues and debates that frame this
lively area of scholarly inquiry.
A brief history of privacy: Athens and China, Locke and Mill
It is difficult to write about the history of privacy because of an overabundance of
subject matter. In this section we will focus on privacy as developed in two distinct
cultures and within two different moral traditions (Moore, 2005). The legal history of
privacy will be covered in a later section.
Classical Athens and China
The distinction between public and private activity was entrenched in Greek society by
the time of Socrates (470-399 BC), Plato (427-347 BC), and Aristotle (384-322 BC).
Typically the distinction was cast in terms of political activity compared to isolated
intellectual pursuits (Moore, 1984). At his defense for corrupting the youth, making the
worse case appear the better, and not believing in the State gods, Socrates writes:
Someone may wonder why I go about in private, giving advice and busying myself with the
concerns of others, but do not venture to come forward in public and advise the state .... For
I am certain, O men of Athens, that if I had engaged in politics, I should have perished long
ago and done no good either to you or to myself. And don’t be offended at my telling you the
truth: for the truth is that no man who goes to war with you or any other multitude, honestly
struggling against the commission of unrighteousness and wrong in the state, will save his
life; he who will really fight for the right, if he would live even for a little while, must have a
private station and not a public one (Plato, Apology, 31c-32a).
As an early social critic, Socrates plays two roles. First he does not hold public office
and seeks his own personal ends. Yet at the same time Socrates publicly challenges
many of the customs, institutions, and well-established philosophical theories of his
day. In a very public way Socrates voiced the opinion that “The unexamined life is not
worth living” which requires individuals to examine their own personal views and
beliefs. Socrates then publicly challenged, and in many cases humiliated, those who
had not examined their own beliefs.
Plato was openly hostile to privacy – deeming it unnecessary and
counterproductive in relation to the ideal state. In The Republic Plato writes:

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