Privacy as a Civil Liberty
This article discusses privacy as a civil liberty, explaining the difference between civil liberties and human rights, and saying why it can be treated in this way. It concludes by describing why it is important to protect our liberties in general, and our right to privacy in particular.
What Are Civil Liberties?Liberty means freedom. Civil liberty means freedom from unwarranted interference, especially from a government. Privacy is one such freedom that comes under this category and must be protected.
Civil liberties are fundamental expectations of the general population, and have a long history of protection in British law. Civil rights, by contrast, are a more modern concept, and are generally concerned with the prevention of discrimination against individuals on grounds such as gender, religion or disability.
The European Convention on Human RightsThe European Convention on Human Rights, to which the UK is a signatory, covers civil liberties in addition to human rights. The part of the Convention of interest to us here is Article 8, entitled “Right to respect for private and family life”.
There are two clauses in this article. The first of these covers the general rights one can expect, and the second restricts what public authorities may do in infringing this right. We shall briefly look at each of these in turn.
The first clause states that everyone shall have the right to respect for their private and family lives. It extends this coverage to say that as a general right people shall be assured that others will not be able to intrude into their homes. Finally, people’s correspondence should also be treated as private, so that nobody has the right to open someone else’s mail without permission.
The second and final clause is specifically about “interference by a public authority” with people’s private lives. This is disallowed except in particular circumstances, which are enumerated as follows:
- in the interests of national security
- for public safety
- for the economic well-being of the country
- for the prevention of disorder or crime
- for the protection of health or morals
- for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others
Defending Your RightsCivil liberties tend to be fundamental rights that have been recognised, cherished and protected for centuries. Privacy is one such civil liberty, and various lobbying organisations work on our behalf to safeguard our right to confidentiality when new legislation is being discussed that could curtail it.
The fact that the UK does not have a written constitution does not diminish the importance of the right to a private life; this remains a yardstick against which new laws must be measured as they are being formulated. In times of crisis, it can be tempting for governments, particularly those with a large majority in parliament, to enact legislation that increases the power of the authorities at the expense of the rights of the population. It is important that people are vigilant, and oppose measures that threaten to erode their civil liberties, including the right to conduct their affairs in private.