55 Pages Posted: 18 Feb 2021
Date Written: February 9, 2021
Privacy harms have become one of the largest impediments in privacy law enforcement. In most tort and contract cases, plaintiffs must establish that they have been harmed. Even when legislation does not require it, courts have taken it upon themselves to add a harm element. Harm is also a requirement to establish standing in federal court. In Spokeo v. Robins, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that courts can override Congress’s judgments about what harm should be cognizable and dismiss cases brought for privacy statute violations.
The caselaw is an inconsistent, incoherent jumble, with no guiding principles. Countless privacy violations are not remedied or addressed on the grounds that there has been no cognizable harm. Courts conclude that many privacy violations, such as thwarted expectations, improper uses of data, and the wrongful transfer of data to other organizations, lack cognizable harm.
Courts struggle with privacy harms because they often involve future uses of personal data that vary widely. When privacy violations do result in negative consequences, the effects are often small – frustration, aggravation, and inconvenience – and dispersed among a large number of people. When these minor harms are done at a vast scale by a large number of actors, they aggregate into more significant harms to people and society. But these harms do not fit well with existing judicial understandings of harm.
This article makes two central contributions. The first is the construction of a road map for courts to understand harm so that privacy violations can be tackled and remedied in a meaningful way. Privacy harms consist of various different types, which to date have been recognized by courts in inconsistent ways. We set forth a typology of privacy harms that elucidates why certain types of privacy harms should be recognized as cognizable. The second contribution is providing an approach to when privacy harm should be required. In many cases, harm should not be required because it is irrelevant to the purpose of the lawsuit. Currently, much privacy litigations suffers from a misalignment of law enforcement goals and remedies. For example, existing methods of litigating privacy cases, such as class actions, often enrich lawyers but fail to achieve meaningful deterrence. Because the personal data of tens of millions of people could be involved, even small actual damages could put companies out of business without providing much of value to each individual. We contend that the law should be guided by the essential question: When and how should privacy regulation be enforced? We offer an approach that aligns enforcement goals with appropriate remedies.
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