The Meaning Of Privacy

What, exactly, do we mean by privacy? It is a complicated and emerging area of law in all Common Law countries. The Supreme Court of the US has declared there is a constitutional right to privacy, but has, so far, only interpreted this against government intrusion. It has used this right to strike down laws banning abortion and gay sex.

There is little tradition in the US of suing private parties for infringing your privacy. Of the four components of American privacy law – identity theft; intrusion into private space; presenting people in a false light; and public disclosure of private information – only the fourth is a pure privacy tort. There are serious restrictions on the implementation of this tort. The media can report anything that is newsworthy and public figures have almost no basis for an action.

None of this is good news for long-shot Virginia Congressional candidate, Krystal Ball. (Yes, that really is her name). Ms. Ball is a rather glamorous 29 year-old, whose campaign has been hit by photos of her taken at a costume party six years ago, when the wife and mother was still single. In the photographs she is shown in some highly suggestive poses and leading a man around on a leash. Any attempt to uphold her privacy would fail on several grounds: as an aspiring politician her past is necessarily newsworthy and the photographs were taken in public. They record nothing other than things which people present could have easily seen. Six years ago, YouTube and Twitter did not exist and Facebook was restricted to students at Harvard. Krystal Ball just missed being part of the generation of politicians who will find their youthful pranks recorded in social media. In another five to ten years people currently in their early twenties will be seeking political office. That generation will find that they have no privacy. Many young people seem to have no conception that photographs taken at a drunken frat party will seem less funny when they married with children, working as an accountant, and seeking election to Congress.

Advising students on how to prepare résumés, I have been astonished at the number who do not realize that a student e-mail address – such as – can present an unfortunate image in a professional context. Others use photographs on their résumé or on the professional networking site, LinkedIn, that would be more appropriate in the social context of Facebook or of a dating site.

When people apply for a job today the first thing an employer does is a Google search on the candidate. In some cases they are hoping to find positive information, such as a well-written blog, with decent spelling and punctuation, which shows an interest in the job they are applying for. What will often turn up is a Facebook profile, and being drunk in the photographs is sometimes the least of the problems. Photos which show students consuming illegal drugs on in very explicit sexual poses may seem entertaining at the time, but will not present a job candidate – let alone a political candidate – in an appropriate light.

Given the way your internet profile can work for or against you, it is worth considering whether it is better to give children names that allow them to be untraceable – Jane Smith would work- or a name that is easy to find like, er, Quentin Langley.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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