The Good & Bad Inherent in Privacy

In Chapter 5 of Ethics for the Information Age, on “Privacy,” Michael J Quinn presents a broad overview of the laws and acts throughout history the United States has enacted that, in most cases, allow government agencies to access information most people would consider private.  What do most people consider private?  This is actually quite a good question, and Quinn begins the chapter addressing privacy.  Is privacy an entitlement that should be included in our Bill of Rights?  Ultimately, Quinn stated that this should be considered a prudential right; rational people would agree to “recognize some privacy rights, because granting these rights is to the benefit of society” (228).

Quinn also brings up an interesting questions – is privacy a good or a bad thing?  Typically, the word itself has a positive connotation to most people: “free from being observed or disturbed by other people.”  Personally, I cherish privacy in my home – even being interrupted by a random knock on my front door can nearly ruin my evening.  However, Quinn also brings up the point that most criminal activity is conducted or planned in private situations – so privacy can result in harm to society as well.

What I appreciated most in this chapter was the information presented in section 5.8.4 concerning the Patriot Act.  I already knew enough about the act to dislike it, but it was informative to read about the follow-up legislation as well as the act’s successes and failures.  It is especially interesting to note that the FBI/law enforcement agencies can receive warrants without “reasonable cause” as long as the agent states that the information is related to an ongoing investigation.  Even more intriguing is the fact that this can be done, even if the investigation is not linked to terrorism.

Looking back at history, most times an individual person or government agency is given powers that are not limited by checks and balances, abuse of those powers will ultimately occur.  In his brief discussion of failures of the Patriot Act, Quinn mentioned the case of Brandon Mayfield.  It is appalling to read that the FBI secretly entered his home multiple times, made copies of his hard drive, collected DNA samples and took multiple digital photographs, all based on a partial fingerprint found at a bombing in Spain.  This is one case that Quinn mentioned that illustrates an alarming abuse of power and invasion of privacy because of the Patriot Act.  The Patriot Act seems to be one that particularly invites the abuse of power, as well as the invasion of privacy.  However, Quinn does assure readers that the act does specify that government agencies will only use this information on suspected criminals.

Overall, the broad presentation of acts and laws in this chapter was very informative.

Sean Nash

Biology teacher in the great state of Kansas. Back at it in the classroom after a 30-year career in Missouri. Former District Curriculum Administrator, Instructional Technology Coordinator, and Instructional Coach. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *