Unilateral Invasions of Privacy

42 Pages Posted: 24 Apr 2016

See all articles by Roger Allan Ford

Roger Allan Ford

University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law; Information Society Project, Yale Law School

Date Written: April 21, 2016


Most people seem to agree that individuals have too little privacy, and most proposals to address that problem focus on ways to give those users more information about, and more control over, how information about them is used. Yet in nearly all cases, information subjects are not the parties who make decisions about how information is collected, used, and disseminated; instead, outsiders make unilateral decisions to collect, use, and disseminate information about others. These potential privacy invaders, acting without input from information subjects, are the parties to whom proposals to protect privacy must be directed.

This Article develops a theory of unilateral invasions of privacy rooted in the incentives of potential outside invaders. It first briefly describes the different kinds of information flows that can result in losses of privacy and the private costs and benefits to the participants in these information flows. It argues that in many cases the relevant costs and benefits are those of an outsider deciding whether certain information flows occur. These outside invaders are more likely to act when their own private costs and benefits make particular information flows worthwhile, regardless of the effects on information subjects or on social welfare. And potential privacy invaders are quite sensitive to changes in these costs and benefits, unlike information subjects, for whom transaction costs can overwhelm incentives to make information more or less private.

The Article then turns to privacy regulation, arguing that this unilateral-invasion theory sheds light on how effective privacy regulations should be designed. Effective regulations are those that help match the costs and benefits faced by a potential privacy invader with the costs and benefits to society of a given information flow. Law can help do so by raising or lowering the costs or benefits of a privacy invasion, but only after taking account of other costs and benefits faced by the potential privacy invader.

Keywords: privacy, information privacy, fourth amendment, invasion

Suggested Citation

Ford, Roger Allan, Unilateral Invasions of Privacy (April 21, 2016). 91 Notre Dame Law Review 1075 (2016), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2768531

Roger Allan Ford (Contact Author)

University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law ( email )

Two White Street
Concord, NH 03301
United States

Information Society Project, Yale Law School

127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511
United States

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