Why we should define our right to privacy now, before it’s too late

The debate has stirred up again. Talk of wiretapping and government spying has spurred another bout of privacy versus security. Internet of Things (IoT) devices have raised suspicion that strangers are listening to us or watching us using everything from TVs to toys.

But all this talk of snooping, eavesdropping, and hacking is a red herring. It’s a distraction. The central question in all of this, one that few are actually talking about, is whether privacy is a human right and what should be done to protect and cherish it.

Security professionals and businesses entrusted with our data have borne the cost and operational responsibility of protecting privacy for too long. What we need is a constitutional amendment that very clearly defines a right to privacy. Without one, we’ll forever be looking over our digital shoulders.

Privacy should be defended as a human right

Seemingly every week, another data breach leaks more of our personal information. Ransom attacks continue to grow, holding our private data hostage until we pay up. Our credit card numbers, our passwords, and our medical records are all the targets of hackers.

But the attacks don’t always come from enemies. Our government can potentially peer into our lives, whether through incidental surveillance or zero-day vulnerabilities that give them access to our devices or apps.

Even our favorite companies can do harm. Businesses, by not taking better steps to secure their IT environments, put in jeopardy the troves of data we hand to them. On a more concerning note, some connected children’s toys can collect audio in our homes without authorization, and the expansion of smart home devices allows companies to collect increasingly personal data about our habits and preferences.

The cost and the responsibility of defending our privacy have always fallen on the organizations we trust our data to and whose devices we buy. Some businesses are better about protecting those assets than others.

But defending data privacy, as important as that is, has always been just the tip of the iceberg.

Our right to privacy extends much further than just our data. It’s our right to our own thoughts and private moments. It’s being able to have a conversation, send a text, or simply relax in our own homes without wondering whether someone else is watching or listening in.

But right now there are no laws that adequately defend our privacy and give us ownership of those moments. Nothing specifically guides whether the government, businesses, or others can confiscate, sell, or use them.

Yet these moments are fundamental to our humanity. Our privacy should be defended like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as unalienable rights. It should be codified by Constitutional amendment like our freedom of speech, religion, and assembly.

Privacy and the Constitution

The right to privacy has been defended by the Supreme Court, which has cited various amendments to the Constitution, including the first, third, fourth, fifth, and fourteenth, in a number of different cases. But we need something more explicit in its protections, something that can encompass the trails of data we leave in the wake of every action, something that can return control of ourselves to ourselves.

A potential amendment to guard our privacy should include the following provisions:

  • U.S. citizens have a right to privacy. Period.
  • Citizens have ownership over their data, from personally identifying information to internet avatars and profiles.
  • Citizens choose who can access that data, when, and for how long.
  • Citizens can opt out of government programs, choosing privacy over security.

By codifying these protections in a new amendment, we can clarify court cases, ascribe responsibility for better security that ensures our privacy, and shore up an essential part of what makes us human as technology offers more ways to tap into our thoughts, feelings, and private moments.

Adding these rights to the Constitution would elevate the right to privacy to the echelon of speech, press, and other rights that are fundamental not only to our personal identity, but to our American identity.

Technology saves us time, connects us across vast distances, delivers entertainment, keeps us safe, advances scientific discovery, and every day makes the world better. But as it does, we need to make sure we guard what makes us human – including our privacy, which is under assault by hackers, can be compromised by security-focused governments, and sometimes lacks optimal security from corporations.

It’s time to define and defend our right to privacy once and for all.

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