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What is privacy?
Your personal information is more than your name, address and Social Security number. It includes your shopping habits, driving record, medical diagnoses, work history, credit score and much more.
The right to privacy refers to having control over this personal information. It is the ability to limit who has this information, how this information is kept and what can be done with it.
Unfortunately, personal privacy is lost, unknowingly forfeited, purchased or stolen every day. In some instances, we individuals can control how our personal information is used.
When is privacy lost?
In which of the following situations do you risk losing your personal information?
- Donating to charity
- Visiting the doctor's office
- Surfing the Internet
- Joining a gym
- Paying your mortgage
In fact, your personal information can be compromised when you do any of these activities.
Companies, hungry to market more effectively, mine data about current and potential customers. Government agencies make marriage certificates, housing transactions and court records publicly available - and online information brokers package and sell that public information to anyone interested. The personal information of millions of people is compromised through data breaches.
Why should you care about privacy?
Often, we don't value privacy until it's gone. But for anyone who has been the victim of identity theft, this lost privacy can mean months or years dealing with harassing debt collectors, police, credit bureaus and government agencies. For victims of stalking and harassment, lost privacy can mean that no place is safe - because our 'electronic footprint' makes it very difficult to live and work without creating a record that can be traced by a web-savvy stalker.
Lost privacy can also mean your personal information is collected, analyzed and shared by marketers, employers, insurance companies and the government without your knowledge or consent. You may learn your privacy has been compromised only after you've been added to the phone lists of charities, refused a job based on your Facebook profile or denied the ability to return a purchase because of previous returns to that store.
Doesn't the law defend privacy?
The "right to privacy" is something many of us take for granted - but it's not mentioned in the Bill of Rights or the Constitution.
In the United States, unlike most developed countries, there is no overarching and comprehensive federal-level law protecting against personal information being collected and stored. Instead, the U.S. has a patchwork of laws covering different types of data protection - with separate laws for medical record privacy, financial privacy, telemarketing, credit reporting and even video rentals.
Like any patchwork system, there are a lot of holes. With technology constantly evolving, our patchwork system of laws is often lagging behind industry innovations - and consumers pay the price.
What can you do?
The right to privacy is a hard-won, ever-evolving battlefield. Here's what you can do today to defend your rights to privacy:
- Educate yourself. The most important thing you can do is learn how to protect your privacy. Get started by reading our Fact Sheet 1 and reviewing our list of Fact Sheets.
- Support legislation that defends privacy. Many of these bills happen on the state level - so get out and vote for better privacy protection.
- Avoid companies with poor privacy practices. When possible, don't do business with companies that fail to protect the personal information they collect on you. Take your money elsewhere - and let the companies know why.
- Donate to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse so that we can continue our work of educating consumers and championing legislation that will protect your personal privacy. (Don't worry - we will always respect your privacy!)
Want to do more? Subscribe to our mailing list for alerts on new privacy issues and tips to help you protect your personal information.
Browse Privacy Topics
Background Checks & Workplace
Banking & Finance
Credit & Credit Reports
Harassment & Stalking
Identity Theft & Data Breaches
Online Privacy & Technology
Privacy When You Shop
Public Records & Info Brokers
Social Security Numbers
Who We Are
We are a nationally recognized consumer education and advocacy nonprofit dedicated to protecting the privacy of American consumers.