Introduction: Privacy in a Democratic Society

April 1, 1998

Introduction: Privacy in a Democratic Society

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"The makers of our Constitution...sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred as against the Government, the right to be let alone -- the most comprehensive of the rights of man and the right most valued by civilized men." 
Justice Louis D. Brandeis dissenting in the Olmstead decision.

From using the telephone to seeking medical treatment to applying for a job or sending e-mail over the Internet, Americans' right to information privacy is in peril. Our personal and business information is being digitized through an ever-expanding number of computer networks in formats that allow data to be linked, transferred, shared and sold, usually without our knowledge or consent. The same technological advances that have brought enormous benefits to humankind also make us more vulnerable than ever before the unwanted snooping.

Enjoying the right to privacy means having control over your own personal data and the ability to grant or deny access to others. But government and business practices that cause serious privacy violations have been insulated from the law. The Privacy Act of 1974 applies only to government agencies and is filled with loopholes. And the private sector is virtually unregulated. That is why the ACLU has called upon Congress to embark on a national legislative program to shore up the information privacy rights of this and future generations.

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