Regulating Real-World Surveillance

54 Pages Posted: 28 Oct 2015 Last revised: 4 Nov 2015

See all articles by Margot E. Kaminski

Margot E. Kaminski

University of Colorado Law School; Yale University - Yale Information Society Project; University of Colorado at Boulder - Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship

Date Written: October 27, 2015


A number of laws govern information gathering, or surveillance, by private parties in the physical world. But we lack a compelling theory of privacy harm that accounts for the state’s interest in enacting these laws. Without a theory of privacy harm, these laws will be enacted piecemeal. Legislators will have a difficult time justifying the laws to constituents; the laws will not be adequately tailored to legislative interest; and courts will find it challenging to weigh privacy harms against other strong values, such as freedom of expression.

This Article identifies the government interest in enacting laws governing surveillance by private parties. Using social psychologist Irwin Altman’s framework of “boundary management” as a jumping-off point, I conceptualize privacy harm as interference in an individual’s ability to dynamically manage disclosure and social boundaries. Stemming from this understanding of privacy, the government has two related interests in enacting laws prohibiting surveillance: an interest in providing notice so that an individual can adjust her behavior; and an interest in prohibiting surveillance to prevent undesirable behavioral shifts.

Framing the government interest, or interests, this way has several advantages. First, it descriptively maps on to existing laws: These laws either help individuals manage their desired level of disclosure by requiring notice, or prevent individuals from resorting to undesirable behavioral shifts by banning surveillance. Second, the framework helps us assess the strength and legitimacy of the legislative interest in these laws. Third, it allows courts to understand how First Amendment interests are in fact internalized in privacy laws. And fourth, it provides guidance to legislators for the enactment of new laws governing a range of new surveillance technologies — from automated license plate readers (ALPRs) to robots to drones.

Keywords: privacy, surveillance, drones, robots, law and technology, First Amendment

JEL Classification: K00, K19

Suggested Citation

Kaminski, Margot E., Regulating Real-World Surveillance (October 27, 2015). Washington Law Review, Vol. 9, No. 113, 2015, Ohio State Public Law Working Paper No. 316, Available at SSRN: or

Margot E. Kaminski (Contact Author)

University of Colorado Law School ( email )

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

Yale University - Yale Information Society Project ( email )

127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511
United States

University of Colorado at Boulder - Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship ( email )

Wolf Law Building
2450 Kittredge Loop Road
Boulder, CO
United States

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