Intellectual Approaches and Conceptual Underpinnings

The concept of privacy has a long intellectual history. Many have written attempting to characterize privacy philosophically, sociologically, psychologically, and legally. This chapter provides a brief sampling of some major intellectual perspectives on privacy, along with some analysis of how these different perspectives relate to one another. These perspectives illustrate some common themes while demonstrating the difficulty inherent in characterizing privacy, no matter what intellectual frameworks or tools are used.

Note also that this chapter—as well as this report—focuses on privacy as it relates to information. The informational dimensions of privacy are clearly central, but at the same time some have argued that the concept of privacy must be broader than that; for example, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a right to choose an abortion or to receive information about contraceptives is founded on privacy protections implied in the Constitution. The discussion below is not intended to address these non-informational dimensions of privacy and mentions them only in passing as they may help to illuminate some of the issues surrounding the notion of privacy and the ethical and moral dimensions of the general privacy debate.

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