The concept of a human “right to privacy” begins when the Latin word “ius” expanded from meaning “what is fair” to include “a right – an entitlement a person possesses to control or claim something,” by the Decretum Gratiani in Bologna, Italy in the 12th Century.
In the United States, an article in the December 15, 1890 issue of the Harvard Law Review, written by attorney Samuel D. Warren and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, entitled “The Right to Privacy“, is often cited as the first explicit finding of a U.S. right to privacy. Warren and Brandeis wrote that privacy is the “right to be let alone”, and focused on protecting individuals. This approach was a response to recent technological developments of the time, such as photography and sensationalist journalism, also known as “yellow journalism“.
Privacy rights are inherently intertwined with information technology. In his widely cited dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States (1928), Brandeis relied on thoughts he developed in his 1890 article The Right to Privacy. In that dissent, he urged that personal privacy matters were more relevant to constitutional law, going so far as to say that “the government was identified as a potential privacy invader.” He writes, “Discovery and invention have made it possible for the Government, by means far more effective than stretching upon the rack, to obtain disclosure in court of what is whispered in the closet.” At that time, telephones were often community assets, with shared party lines and potentially eavesdropping switchboard operators. By the time of Katz, in 1967, telephones had become personal devices with lines not shared across homes and switching was electro-mechanical. In the 1970s, new computing and recording technologies raised more concerns about privacy, resulting in the Fair Information Practice Principles.
In recent years there have been few attempts to clearly and precisely define the “right to privacy”.
A nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice J.S. Khehar, ruled in Justice K. S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) and Anr. vs Union Of India And Ors. on August 24, 2017, that the Right to Privacy is a fundamental right for Indian citizens under the Constitution of India (mostly under Article 21 and additionally under Part III rights). Thus no legislation passed by the government can unduly violate it. Specifically, the court adopted the three-pronged test required for the encroachment of any Article 21 right – legality-i.e. through an existing law; necessity, in terms of a legitimate state objective and proportionality, that ensures a rational nexus between the object of the invasion and the means adopted to achieve that object. This clarification was crucial to prevent the dilution of the right in the future on the whims and fancies of the government in power. The Court adopted a liberal interpretation of the fundamental rights in order to meet the challenges posed an increasing digital age. It held that individual liberty must extend to digital spaces and individual autonomy and privacy must be protected.
This ruling by the Supreme Court paved the way for decriminalization of homosexuality in India on 6 September 2018, thus legalizing same-sex sexual intercourse between two consenting adults in private. India is the world’s biggest democracy and with this ruling, it has joined United States, Canada, South Africa, the European Union, and the UK in recognizing this fundamental right.
The new data sharing policy of Whatsapp with Facebook after Facebook acquired Whatsapp in 2014 has been challenged in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court must decide if the right to privacy can be enforced against private entities.