Right to Privacy 101: Basis, Definition, and Purpose

Right to Privacy 101: Basis, Definition, and Purpose

The right to privacy is one of the fundamental rights of individuals according to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. Democratic countries across the globe have specific laws aimed at protecting the privacy of individuals. However, it is also important to take note of the fact that the concept of protecting the privacy of individuals first emerged in the American political and landscape during the 1890s.

Understanding the Basis for Right to Privacy

Boston-based lawyer Samuel D. Warren and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote the article “The Right to Privacy” that appeared on the 15 December 1980 issue of Harvard Law Review. It has now been regarded as the first publication in the U.S. that promoted privacy rights while also providing a legal framework for its scope and limitation.

The two legal luminaries wrote the review in response to the advent of instantaneous photography and the widespread circulation of newspapers, which, according to them, had contributed to the invasion of individual privacy. The also noted that the press had overstepped its boundaries by spreading gossips and other stories that were not newsworthy.

Nevertheless, in his book, American political scientist Adam Carlyle Breckenridge explained that the right to privacy originates from the notion that an individual should have control over the information about himself or herself, as well as mandate over his or her degree of participation in the community as he or she deems fit.

Law professor Daniel J. Solove also explained that numerous jurisdictions had described privacy rights as the right to be left alone. The courts have argued that this right is needed for the pursuit of happiness of an individual, as well as for the promotion of his or her individual identity, dignity, and autonomy, in addition to the protection of his or her welfare.

Explaining the Purpose of Privacy Rights

Appreciating further the importance of the purpose of the right to privacy requires a further understanding of why privacy is important. As an example, allowing an individual to have full control over information about himself or herself means letting him or her protect those specific information that could put him or her at risk.

Examples of these information include address of residence and workplace, personal data such as government identification numbers, bank accounts, and medical records, among others. Someone with bad intentions can use the personal address of an individual to stalk or harass him or her, or use personal data to steal his or her identity or gain access to his or her asset.

In another example, maintaining privacy or the right to be left alone is critical to building and maintaining identity, dignity, and autonomy because interferences or distractions from prying eyes and meddling behaviors can put an individual under emotional and mental distress or make him or her too dependent.

However, the right to privacy often conflicts with other sociopolitical and legal concepts. Take note that laws and corresponding programs aimed at protecting and promoting the national security of a country as an example. Furthermore, although it has pros or benefits to individuals, it has criticisms and limitations.


  • Breckenridge, A. C. 1970. The Right to Privacy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press
  • Warren, S. D. and Brandeis, L. 1980. “The Right to Privacy.” Harvard Law Review. 4(5): 193. DOI: 2307/1321160
  • Solove, D. J. 2016. “Conceptualizing Privacy.” In ed. J. A. Cannatici, The Individual and Privacy. London: Routledge