Do Corporations Have a Right to Privacy?

by David_Allen2 min read21st Jan 20114 comments


Personal Blog

The link to Bruce Schneier's original post.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether or not corporations have the same rights to "personal privacy" that individuals do.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a amicus curiae brief in the case.

The brief makes legal and philosophical arguments for privacy as an important human right, and that it is not a corporate right, and does not need to be. It also contains a number of scholarly references on the topic.

I find the legal arguments against a corporate right to privacy convincing. Corporations in our current legal context are intentionally organized to provide certain types of public accountability.

However, I am not convinced by the philosophical arguments for restricting the right to privacy to individuals.


To summarize the utility of an individual right to privacy, as discussed in the brief:

A right to privacy is necessary for individuals to enjoy the feelings of autonomy, control and security, which are important for healthy cognitive development. It protects the seclusion needed for experimentation, developing identity, establishing intimate relationships, and for making meaningful choices free of ex-ante manipulation and coercion. It provides the opportunity to structure life in unconventional ways, freeing a person from the stultifying effects of scrutiny and approbation or disapprobation. It helps to avoid embarrassment, preserving dignity and respect, avoiding harm to social development and growth. It helps to prevent the appropriation of a person's name or likeness. It sets the balance of power between a person, and the world around them.

To summarize the philosophical argument against a corporate right to privacy:

Corporate entities are incapable of experiencing hurt feelings.

I think these arguments provide an unwarranted special status to human emotion. Emotions are body states related to expected utility. They bias decision making toward choices that maximize reward and minimize punishment.
Although corporate entities do not experience body states in the same way that humans do, they demonstrate responses similar to individuals in equivalent situations.
Corporate entities have strong survival related incentives for protecting their public image and will respond to social pressures. They will actively defend themselves from legal and market threats. They need to understand the limits of their autonomy, control and security so they can evaluate risks and make good decisions. They benefit from seclusion for experimentation, developing identity, establishing high trust relationships, and for making meaningful choices free of ex-ante manipulation and coercion. They benefit from opportunities to structure their organization in unconventional ways. That need to protect their name and likeness.

Another argument against a corporate right to privacy that I have heard, is that corporate entities have more power than individuals, and therefore they require more transparency and accountability.
Power however is not restricted to corporate entities. Individuals can also wield the power of money, position and influence. By this argument they should also be forced to endure greater transparency and accountability.
Also, there are corporate entities that have no more power than common individuals. Additional accountability would burden these entities, with no meaningful benefit to the community.


4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:12 AM
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I agreee with much of your analysis, but I'm tempted to downvote since this seems potentially very mind-killing due to its political nature.

Although I did not consider this to be dangerously political when I posted it, the negative karma may indicate that others agree with you. However, the lack of angry comments would seem to indicate that this isn't of the mind-killing variety.

Power however is not restricted to corporate entities. Individuals can also wield the power of money, position and influence. By this argument they should also be forced to endure greater transparency and accountability.

And indeed they are!

Hanson's reply sums up my position. Define By Consequences!