Why you have the right to obscurity

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
April 15, 2015

Co-authored with Evan Selinger.

Some people argue that the Digital Age has eviscerated obscurity. They say shifts in the technological and economic landscapes have forever changed society.

Their argument is that a tipping point has occurred; it’s now too late to stop others from collecting, aggregating, and analyzing nearly every aspect of our data trail, and profiting from a steady stream of intrusive privacy invasions.  

Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill insists the naysayers are wrong. Ms. Brill not only says there’s ample evidence that people at home and abroad value obscurity, but she further contends that new domestic legislation should be enacted to provide consumers with the enhanced obscurity protections and other privacy protections that they deserve. We recently spoke with Brill about her obscurity agenda. Edited excerpts follow.

Selinger and Hartzog: Your vision for how to best enhance consumer protections has a strong obscurity component. Since the term "obscurity" isn't widely used in legal and policy circles, let's begin with a definition and basic context. What does obscurity mean and why have you adopted the vocabulary?

Brill: To understand what obscurity means, we first need to take a step back and talk about what privacy means. Louis Brandeis, the father of privacy in the modern era – as well as the father of the Federal Trade Commission – defined privacy as the “right to be let alone.”The concept of privacy has clearly shifted in this “always on” age – where individuals cherish being connected, shopping online and through apps, and sharing with friends and colleagues through social networks, but believe that their online activities shouldn’t be subject to invasive monitoring. While Brandeis’ notion of seclusion is still clearly within the cluster of concepts that form our current understanding of privacy, I think the meaning of privacy now also includes an individual’s right to have some control over their online persona and destiny. Individuals want to be able to share with their friends and business associates on social media, shop online, and use connected devices, but they don’t necessarily want all of these activities monitored, tracked, collected, and used by entities they do not know or with whom they have no relationship.

Read the full piece at The Christian Science Monitor.